Athletes at the Air Force Academy and the other service academies will be allowed to turn pro immediately after graduation and either delay active-duty service or repay the cost of their education, the Associated Press reported.
The new guidelines were laid out by Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a memo obtained by The Associated Press.
Promised months ago by President Donald Trump, the policy provides clarity to a controversial issue that has seen changes in recent years at inopportune times for some Falcons athletes.
Graduates from the academies are required to serve five years on active duty. For decades, athletes were required to serve two years on active duty after graduation before applying to serve out that obligation on Reserve status.
In the final year of the Obama administration, athletes could, with permission, go pro immediately and serve their time in the Reserves. This policy, enacted in the months before the graduation of NFL hopefuls Jalen Robinette, Weston Steelhammer and others from Air Force, led to speculation they could be taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.
However, just as the draft began, the Trump administration reverted to the prior policy. Robinette and Steelhammer went undrafted and began serving on active duty.
Falcons baseball player Griffin Jax had been drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Twins after the rules had been relaxed. He signed, forgoing eligibility during his senior season.
Then, the rule changed and Jax had two truncated seasons in the minor leagues while juggling active-duty service. For the past two seasons, he has played professionally under the World Class Athlete Program and has advanced to Triple-A.
Two of the most famous military academy graduates who played professional sports, Navy’s David Robinson and Air Force’s Chad Hennings, had to fulfill active-duty obligations after being drafted by pro teams.
Robinson served two years after being drafted before joining the NBA San Antonio Spurs. Hennings, who initially had an eight-year commitment as a pilot, flew combat missions in the first Iraq war before joining the Dallas Cowboys in 1992.
The Associated Press reports that the new policy would require that athletes obtain a waiver that would be reviewed annually. If athletes can’t pass medical standards when it is time to rejoin the military, they will be encouraged to serve in a civilian post within the department for at least five years, according to Esper’s memo.
The other option would be to repay the cost of their education, estimated at $500,000.
Many athletes from Air Force have told The Gazette they would prefer a policy like this, saying they looked forward to serving but understood they had a limited window to pursue professional sports. They would now be able to do both.
Trump first suggested changing the policy during a White House visit by Army’s football team in April.
The memo lays out the rationale for the move, saying there “is a strong expectation that a military service academy cadet or midshipman’s future professional sports employment will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions.”