Air Force football coaches strategically placed Ben Garland on the podium to close a busy on-campus recruiting weekend earlier this month.
Garland touted the benefits of an academy education and the military career guaranteed to graduates. And the San Francisco 49ers guard also noted the NFL experiences that have followed his time with the Falcons.
Almost immediately, Air Force landed three commitments.
The lure of professional sports is strong. An announcement Wednesday that President Donald Trump directed the Department of Defense to craft a policy to allow service academy grads to defer their time on active duty to play immediately eliminates the barrier that kept Falcons athletes from pursuing that goal.
Reaction on social media included strong opposition to Trump’s order for a new policy, but many at Air Force think it will have the desired effect of strengthening athletics at the academies.
“It impacts it this way — everyone negative recruits against us,” basketball coach Dave Pilipovich said. “They tell the young men, ‘Well, you’ll never have an opportunity to play professionally (if you play at Air Force).’
“It changes their mind sometimes, and it hurts us. Now they won’t be able to use that. That’s the biggest part.”
Football assistant coaches, speaking off the record, said they get questions about the NFL “all the time.” Previously, they had to “dance around” the topic because the policy had shifted in recent years.
The new policy, which Trump wants completed in the next four months, will likely throw in a new wrinkle by presenting the option of deferring active-duty time. The current policy, put back into place in 2017, requires two years of active duty before athletes can apply to serve out the remainder of their five-year commitment on reserve status. In 2016, the policy had loosened to allow grads to apply for reserves immediately after graduation.
The assumption is that a new policy will keep the commitment requirement that cadets agree to as part of their publicly funded education, but allow at least some time for athletes to test the pro waters before they would be asked to report. For those few that make it professionally, stipulations would likely be put in place as to what would be expected of them from that point.
“I think as far as the athletic standpoint, you always want to play when you’re younger and at your best,” Pilipovich said. “That gives them the opportunity to continue and do that. They’re still going to be outstanding officers. I don’t think it will hurt them by not starting right away, and maybe even mature them a little more.”
The athletes in the Class of 2023 who reported Thursday made their commitments with the understanding that at least two years on active duty would be required. But a clearer path to professional ball would have made that decision easier.
“I feel like it definitely would have,” basketball player Nikc Jackson said. “Going pro wasn’t something that was a major concern for me. I’m going to play out my career, and if it goes there that’s awesome.”
Added three-star football recruit Jace Waters, “You ask a lot of people in high school what they want to be and they’ll say professional athletes. I think this will be good publicity for the academy and maybe get some more big-time guys in here.”