Service-academy athletes have been caught in the middle of policy changes on the matter in recent years. For instance, former Baltimore Ravens sixth-rounder Keenan Reynolds was able to defer his service after being drafted in 2016 thanks to a policy change under the Obama administration. However, the U.S. Department of Defense rescinded that change a year later, barring athletes — like former Air Force football players Jalen Robinette and Weston Steelhammer — from delaying their required two years of service.
In 2019, President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper changed guidelines that opened the door for athletes at military academies to delay their active-duty service after they graduate in order to play professional sports, pending approval from the defense secretary. Once those players’ careers were over, they were required to fulfill their outstanding military obligation or repay the costs of their education. But if the new bill is signed into law, deferment will no longer be allowed.
Service-academy athletes are fairly rare in professional sports, including the NFL. Since the start of the 2020 NFL season, only five former Army players logged at least one game of action, including former Steelers and Ravens offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Only three former Air Force players (most notably, tight end Garrett Griffin, who spent six years with the Saints and is now on the Lions’ practice squad) and four former Navy players (including Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona) saw NFL action in that same span.
Carter hopes to be only the third Army player drafted into the NFL — and first taken higher than Round 7 — in the common draft era, which began in 1967. Air Force has had nine players taken in the NFL draft during the common draft era, including 2022 sixth-rounder Jordan Jackson. Navy has had eight players drafted into the league in this span, including 2020 seventh-rounder Malcolm Perry, who retired from football in August.
Whether Carter’s family has any real recourse on the matter isn’t clear. The three major military academies are scrambling to get on the same page, sources in the athletic departments of two of the schools told NFL.com, and plan to meet in the coming days to discuss their options.
This new ruling would be especially painful for upperclassmen athletes at military schools, as their options to go elsewhere to pursue their professional dreams in sports are more limited. According to Army’s athletic department, after two years at these schools, military academy students must “affirm” their commitment to serve prior to the start of Year 3. It’s considered a binding agreement at that point, dramatically increasing the penalties for dropping out of the schools early. In the case of Carter, who had his breakout season with 15.5 sacks for the Black Knights as a junior in 2021, he had not yet emerged as an NFL prospect, so leaving prior to his affirmation wasn’t a realistic option for him.
Adding to the frustration for Carter and Army is that he unofficially reaffirmed to the Black Knights this season, with the understanding that the existing policy on service-academy athletes pursuing pro sports careers would remain the status quo for the length of Carter’s stay on campus. Army coaches told NFL.com — and Carter confirmed — that several big-name college football programs made overtures to Carter through back channels to try to lure him into the NCAA’s transfer portal this past summer following his All-American season, Army’s first in football since 1990.
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