As is the case at other schools, football is a source of communal entertainment, pride, and goodwill for the academies. In 2015, the local economic impact of the Army-Navy game was predicted to be as high $30 million; ratings for the contest were the highest in 15 years. “It delivers an incredible show for the entire country every year,” a Philadelphia sports official recently told theBaltimore Sun. The sport also serves as a military recruiting tool: last year, the Defense Department lifted the “David Robinson Rule”—a minimum two-year postgrad active duty requirement for academy athletes—in order to allow them to play professional sports immediately, provided they serve for eight to 10 years in the reserves. Why the change, which allowed Navy quarterback and Heisman candidate Keenan Reynolds to play in the NFL preseason for the Baltimore Ravens? Public relations. “The value that we get far outweighs the active duty service commitment,” then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told Sports Illustrated.
With football in particular, there’s a longstanding and sentimental sense that the game’s inherent violence helps prepare players for actual combat—or, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, “on the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” Could the academies ever conclude otherwise? In the short term, it seems unlikely. Critics inside and outside the military have argued that football compromises admission standards, detracts from the core mission of preparing officers for active duty, and costs too much money. And still football goes on: