With the 250th pick, in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings select... Austin Cutting?
Out of Air Force?
Did the Vikings spend a draft pick on a long snapper? Did the Vikings use a pick on a player who can’t even play next season?
Maybe. And, maybe. However, you would think that Vikings’ General Manager Rick Spielman would absolutely know the answers to these questions before making the selection.
First Question (still not really answered)
The first question is kind of hard to tell from any perspective outside of an NFL front office. Teams only carry one long snapper on the roster and, frankly, they don’t like to pay a lot for this position. Is a seventh round draft pick cheaper than a veteran free agent? Is Austin Cutting THAT much better than a guy who has been around the league for a few years? It’s hard to tell, but another service academy long snapper in Joe Cardona was drafted in the fifth round by the New England Patriots in 2015, so there is a bit of a precedent here.
Second Question (a little better)
This question is even harder to answer but should be more certain for a general manager before using a draft pick.
Service academy graduates have a minimum of five years of service required in the military after finishing school. In the past, athletes who were drafted to play professional sports have been granted waivers and allowed to play their sport after serving two years in the military and the rest of their time in the Reserves, but it had been up to the individual service secretaries historically to decide whether or not they would be allowed to pursue a professional career after the two years was up.
There are plenty of examples to indicate just how differently each service branch handled this in the past. David Robinson served two years in the Navy before joining the Spurs. A guy we just had on our first podcast episode in Billy Hurley III was required to serve his full commitment before chasing down PGA Tour dreams. Mitch Harris was required to serve in the Navy for over four years before being granted his release to play Major League Baseball.
Caleb Campbell was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 7th round under the premise that he would be able to play right away following a change at Army called the Alternative Service Option in which if under contract and not cut from a team, he could forego the two years of required active duty time. The Department of the Army suspended the ASO right as Campbell arrived for his first training camp with the Lions and he had to serve his two years.
Chad Hall served two years in the Air Force before being picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles.
As you can see, the problem with the rule in the past has always been that each service branch chose how they applied the rule to their service members differently and it has not been remotely consistent to say the least.
However in 2016, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. That year, at the USNA graduation ceremony, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced he was changing the rule for the entire Department of Defense, enabling players to apply for a waiver to play right away and serve all of their time in the Reserves.
Cardona, who I mentioned before, was drafted the year prior and was able to gain his active duty release as well. Joe Greenspan did the same in his attempt to make it in Major League Soccer.
At the time, the rule was met of course with skepticism by some, but the reversal at least paved the way where across the entire DOD, things might be more consistent.
However, on April 29 2017, General Jim Mattis took over as Secretary of Defense under the Trump administration, and the policy allowing athletes to go pro directly after graduation was reversed, back to the need to spend at least two years on active duty before petitioning to serve in the Reserves.
This was literally the third day of the NFL Draft when guys like Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette thought they might get drafted only to find out that day, they would have to spend two years on active duty first.
Politics meet Football.
A way around this potentially is the World Class Athlete Program. This program was designed for, well like it says, world class athletes, who are members of the military. However, in order to qualify, you must be playing a sport governed by a national body, aka an Olympic Sport and training for international competition, aka the Olympics.
Players such as Tucker Bone of Air Force, who was drafted by the Seattle Sounders with the 20th pick of the 2019 MLS Draft, are hoping to go this route in order to “train for the Olympics” while playing for his MLS squad and then perhaps apply after two years to spend the remainder of his time in the Reserves.
It’s the same way Griffin Jax, currently a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins minor league system, is able to play professional baseball. He started out thinking he would be allowed to go straight to the pros before having the 2017 Mattis reversal change that only to get accepted into the WCAP in order to train for the Olympics since baseball is an olympic sport once again.
As you can probably tell from reading that last sentence, it can be a challenging mess to sort out whether or not service academy athletes will be allowed to pursue professional sports careers.
There are a handful of effects for allowing athletes to play professional sports without serving as active duty military officers. Whether these effects are good or bad is dependent upon the viewer. For example, one could assume recruiting, advertisement, and exposure for the military in a positive light would be a good result. At the same time, there lies the possibility that high school seniors would attend these service academies with the intention of playing professional sports vice serving in the military and all the responsibilities of being an officer, which is the entire purpose of these institutions.
Regardless of where you fall out on that spectrum, this brings us back to the present and newly drafted Minnesota Viking Austin Cutting.
General Mattis is no longer the Secretary of Defense. Currently, Patrick Shanahan is serving as the acting Secretary of Defense.
Is there a chance this policy could be changed yet again? Who knows?
Cutting will not qualify for the World Class Athlete Program since football isn’t an olympic sport. He more than likely will have to serve two years of active duty in some capacity, although if the Air Force is willing to work with him, there is certainly still a chance he can make that work similar to Cardona’s first year with the Patriots.
As of now, Cutting will be attending Rookie Mini Camp with the Minnesota Vikings from May 3-5. Conveniently, this falls on a weekend, where Cutting will only miss one day of required academic classes.
After that, who knows what will happen. The Vikings obviously have some level of assurance that the Air Force is going to help Cutting fulfill his service obligations while also snapping in Minneapolis. But other teams and players have been led to believe these things would work out smoother than they ultimately did.
Here’s to hoping sooner rather than later that Cutting understands exactly what he will have to do to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force while also pursuing his NFL dreams!