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An extra year of eligibility from NCAA does little for Service Academy seniors, but that’s okay

The NCAA has said it will work to grant extra year of eligibility for seniors in spring sports, but for nearly all Service Academy athletes, bigger things lie ahead.

Track & Field: NCAA Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll start this off by saying that I don’t pretend to fully understand or comprehend what it means to work your tail off to get recruited to play a Division I NCAA sport, then spend four years training nearly every single day, only to see the hopes and dreams for your last competitive athletics season cut inexplicably short by events completely outside of your control.

Like everyone else, we at Against All Enemies were shocked by the quickly developing events of the last week, and after we posted a quick story about the Patriot League voting to cancel all spring competitions, it was evident that we were barreling towards uncharted territory.

And just like most everyone else, our first thoughts all drifted immediately to the seniors on these teams; the wrestlers gearing up for a shot at an NCAA title, lacrosse players etching their names into the record books, baseball teams destined for another conference tournament battle for a shot at an NCAA regional, and many more.

The NCAA came out just a couple days later and announced that the Division I Council Coordination Committee had agreed that “eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.”

They also said that they “will also discuss issues related to seasons of competition for winter sport student-athletes who were unable to participate in conference and NCAA championships.”

Though the details have yet to be worked out on how this will all be sorted out, to include scholarship limits, roster sizes, financial details, etc., it is certainly the right thing to do, to give seniors across the country the option of returning for one more year to compete if they so desire. I applaud that necessary decision being made so quickly.

But for the service academy athlete, this decision does little to impact how their careers came to a screeching halt and ended so abruptly, as nearly if not all of them will never get to use this relief to play intercollegiate athletics again.

There have been service academy athletes who have gained a medical hardship and extra year of eligibility in the past, though most of these were in fall sports. These student-athletes, who may have had to miss school for recovery, usually end up being delayed graduates later that year. However, even in recent years, high profile student-athletes at the service academies who have been seeking an extra year of eligibility have been told that they will instead graduate and commission on time with the rest of their classmates in May.

Once again, I don’t pretend to understand the rigors of being a Division I student-athlete, but I do understand the “needs of the Navy”, and that they always, always, always come first. You can apply that to all of the service branches, that just happens to be the phrase I heard the most, because of the academy I attended and the branch I served in.

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard those four words in my career. Sometimes, it seemed like an inconvenience, an impediment for what I wanted to gain out of my career, or a justification for why something didn’t go according to MY plan.

As an aviator, nothing is ever more evident of this than when you finish primary flight training, and select the type of aircraft you will be headed to for advanced flight training and beyond. This is the first time your life and career are in many ways completely out of your hands, and while we as aviators have always found creative ways to let someone know what their future holds, at the end of the day, the “needs of the Navy” go a long way in dictating that choice.

Sometimes, you wouldn’t have the grades to have earned a selection you desired. Other times, there just wasn’t a spot in that type of aircraft available for you on the week you just happened to be selecting. Regardless, your next 9 plus years were laid out for you with that decision and it came down to some combination of your performance and what spots the Navy needed to fill to keep the flight training pipeline to the Fleet moving that week.

It can be a tough pill to swallow for some that even though they did everything right, met every measure they were supposed to meet, they still didn’t get the result that was supposed to come from that hard work.

I’ve seen young junior officers turn into old junior officers, still bitter and resenting a decision made a decade or more prior, never letting go of something that was out of their control, and blaming everything that went wrong in their career on that choice.

I’ve also seen young officers who didn’t get what they wanted, whose career and life took a sharp detour from what they had envisioned, take the bull by the horns and turn that gut-wrenching decision into an opportunity to be their best selves regardless of the circumstance.

It’s the same way for all of the spring sport seniors who will never get the chance to take the NCAA up on that extra year of eligibility. They won’t have the chance to utilize this eligibility relief because graduation and commissioning are what’s most important in the end, and there is no chance to put that on hold to compete in intercollegiate athletics another season. The “needs of the Navy” and every other service branch still remain at the forefront, and the Fleet is relying on its primary commissioning sources to send it a certain number of young junior officers ready to serve and do their part.

I’ve spoken with friends and coaches closest to some of these winter and spring sport athletes in the last week. I know just how tough this has been to come to grips with, and I’ve heard first hand accounts about the tears that were shed in locker rooms by players and coaches alike in Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and West Point over the last week.

There will always be that “what if” component for these seniors, and we truly feel for them because of that. They have all worked incredibly hard to get to this position, only to see their playing careers altered by something completely out of their hands.

But I hope that days, weeks, months, or years from now, that they see this as the first time that the needs of the many came ahead of their own. They are about to embark on careers in which this will come into play often, and sometimes, the decisions made that effect their own personal careers, will not be the ones they would have chosen if the choice was completely up to them.

They will be told to fly an aircraft they had no desire to fly. They will be given an MOS that is not anywhere near the top of their wish list. They will be ordered to a duty station halfway around the world when all they wanted to do was keep their family right where they already were.

And they can focus on all the what-ifs that come along with those decisions, or they can think back when those times do occur, to that time everything ended abruptly in their flourishing athletic careers, and remember that they can use this as an opportunity to continue becoming their best selves, to focus on the things that are in their control, and to believe that regardless, the best is still yet to come.

The NCAA eligibility waiver will provide little to any relief to the teams at our nation’s service academies, and I know right now that it’s still tough to process, but in the end, I believe that’s okay.

Scott Van Pelt gave shoutouts to some of our service academy athletes during his SeniorNight segment he’s been running the past few days.

We will be spending the next few weeks in similar fashion, celebrating these spring and winter sport seniors at our service academies, who didn’t get the chance to put a stamp on their careers the way they would have intended, but are moving on to bigger and better things as Ensigns and Second Lieutenants serving our nation around the world.

We hope this series at least gives us the chance to shine a light on these incredible student-athletes, for what they’ve accomplished on the mat, court, and field, but more importantly for what they’ve accomplished already and will continue to accomplish off of it in the months and years ahead!