As a long-suffering backer of the Sons of Slum and Gravy, I was not shocked to see another opinion piece tilting at the windmill of Army football. College sports are a favorite whipping boy, and football takes the lion’s share of the lashes. Army football is no stranger to such criticism. The latest salvo against the role of football at the nation’s premiere service academy came early last week. Maj. Dwight Mears—a West Point history professor—offered his thoughts on academy leaders’ efforts to reinvigorate a flagging program. After a dozen losses to the U.S. Naval Academy and years of losing seasons, West Point is considering taking “educated risks” to restore its program to respectability. Mears believes football derails the Academy from its mission of producing Army officers. Not only is he wrong, but the facts he chose to fit his conclusion undervalue the sport and West Point’s players.

Mears believes that West Point cheapens itself for football. He points out that 60% of the current team entered through the Academy’s prep school. The elitist implication is that these young men dilute the talent pool because they don’t meet West Point’s rigorous standards. Yet those prep school graduates make up roughly 18% of a West Point class—about 200 cadets. Of those, only about 50 to 60 cadets play football. The balance of a prep school class consists of athletes recruited for other sports, minorities, and enlisted Army soldiers seeking to become officers. Apparently, Mears believes the overall success of the academy hinges on that handful of young men he feels don’t measure up, to say nothing of the rest of the prep school graduates. His real concern appears to be the existence of a prep school at all, and his laments suggest he believes that the prep school fails at its “preparatory” mission.

As evidence of football’s detrimental effect on West Point’s ability to produce the “best possible officers for long-term service in the Army,” Mears claims football players leave the Army earlier, or fail to reach the higher ranks. An examination of the Army careers of top cadets would likely yield similar findings. The most talented grads often leave the Army swiftly for more lucrative opportunities. West Point boasts 89 Rhodes Scholars, but only three became top generals. Mears takes no issue with the effect of that mass exodus, though. Bell curves have two tails, and those at either end of the USMA academic talent pool do not make the Army their long-term home. Geniuses who depart the Army at five years are worth no more to the institution than a hard-nosed linebacker who does the same. In fact, they may sometimes be worth less.

West Point grads know that for every football player who struggles with math, a math-whiz struggles with pushups. Officership is not a purely academic affair, despite Mears’ insistence on measuring cadets’ worth in such narrow terms. Until smart cadets failing fitness tests are televised on Saturdays, though, football will be the easy bogeyman.

Mears does not see the value of football because he views it through an antiquated lens. He subscribes to longtime cadet trainer Herman Koehler’s view—that athletics are “for the good the individual gets out of them.” How delightfully Victorian! Perhaps every cadet should take a cold shower each morning for its invigorative properties, too. The Mess Hall should serve castor oil with each meal to embolden young bodies against the rigors of winter weather.  All of these notions are laughably antiquated and sadly myopic. West Point is not Eton College, and athletics at all levels offer cadets far more than the staid lessons of graceful losing and healthful living.

No longer the Ivy League affectation it was in Koehler’s day, college football is now the second-most popular sport in America. Such visibility cannot be dismissed offhand. West Point must still sell itself to the next generation of the best and brightest youngsters. Yet, despite two very visible wars, the Army and its academy have become ever more distant from the public. Football is vital to the institution’s image in America. The hallowed ground of Michie Stadium makes West Point visceral and real in the minds of youngsters pondering their bright futures.

West Point’s mission is to make combat leaders. In so many ways, such leadership is the art of taking educated risks. Retired general and Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins is right: making West Point a place of winners is worth such risks. To say otherwise is to shy away from the challenge—a challenge to which the Naval and Air Force Academies have risen without their walls crumbling. Critics of West Point’s efforts to improve the football program never make the argument that football has ruined the Naval Academy, because it has not.

The Army is a contact sport, and despite Mears’ disdain for Gen. MacArthur’s famous quip, there truly is no substitute for victory. The ethos of total victory is why soldiers and graduates have sacrificed life and limb for over 230 years. That ethos must mean something every day—including Saturdays. The will to compete against the powers of college football is a bold declaration of the fighting spirit West Point instills in each graduate.  Winning must be the exclamation point.

Perhaps West Point’s greater concern should be that one of its history professors believes that the post-MacArthur outcome of the Korean War was an acceptable substitute for victory.

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About The Author

Rob Paulsen. Old Grad staying young, staying hip to the fresh jive. Hating Navy around the clock. O-H. I-O.