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Navy’s Cameron Kinley says he’s in a ‘gray area’ after being denied NFL dreams

There’s no standard policy for service academy athletes to play pro sports, leaving players Kinley unsure of their future.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rookie Minicamp
Former Navy cornerback Cameron Kinley practices during rookie mini-camp with Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Kinley arrived at the Naval Academy in 2017 with aspirations to serve his country. At that time, the possibility of being a pro athlete wasn’t at the top of his mind, but it was a childhood dream.

Now that the opportunity has come, it remains uncertain if he’ll be able to do both.

Kinley, who played cornerback at Navy, went undrafted this April but later signed a free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on May 1 after impressing at the team’s rookie camp. When he returned to Annapolis to attend his graduation in late May, he was under the impression he’d be leaving the academy to head straight to the NFL. That day, Kinley — the president of his class at the academy — presented Vice President Kamala Harris with a gift at graduation.

Days later, he learned that Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker denied his waiver request that would’ve delayed his commission and allowed him to play for the Bucs. Under Harker’s orders, Kinley is required to begin serving as an ensign.

“I felt like I finally had a sense of knowing what was next in my life,” Kinley told Against All Enemies. “And then everything took a turn of events. And now I’m back at square one.”

Unlike student athletes at other colleges, the possibility of players from the Navy, Army or Air Force academies playing in a professional sports league depends on the current policy. It has changed many times over the past few years, but not since 2019, when former President Trump announced a change that would allow service academy athletes the chance to temporarily forgo their two-year active duty commitment and play professionally.

Under this change, several former service academy grads have gone on to various careers in pro sports while serving in reserve status in their respective branch, including Malcon Perry, Elijah Riley, Tucker Bone, Zac McGraw and most recently, Griffin Jax.

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles safety Marcus Epps and defensive back Elijah Riley celebrate after an interception by Epps in the third quarter of the game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 03, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

While Trump’s memo allowed for this policy, each service academy operates differently and the decision to release the players eventually lies with the military branch itself. Ultimately, its up to the secretaries, like Harker, on whether or not to forward requests to the Secretary of Defense.

This spring, other Service Academy graduates — Army’s Jon Rhattigan, and Air Force’s Parker Ferguson, Nolan Laufenberg and George Silvanic — had their commissions delayed and were allowed to pursue careers in the NFL.

In addition to Kinley, Navy senior pitcher Charlie Connolly’s request to delay his commissioning was also denied. Connolly, who can consistently throw a 95 mph fastball, struck out 45 batters in 36 innings pitched this season and would’ve likely been selected in the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft. Connolly told the Baltimore Sun, “I guess my baseball career is over for the foreseeable future.”

Because there isn’t uniformity across the branches when it comes to this specific decision, it has left some student athletics like Kinley playing the waiting game at the end of their senior season.

“It’s a difficult situation for Cameron,” NFL agent Michael De Sane said. “He wants to serve his country but playing football at the highest level has been his lifelong dream, and now that it’s a real possibility it is being stripped from him at the last second. I just don’t understand why he can’t do both, serve his country as a reservist while achieving his dreams and bringing good light to the Academy that prepared them to compete at this level, it’s just sad.”

De Sane represents Kinley, among other pro athletes, and has been hoping that his story making rounds on social media will encourage more conversation about service academy graduates.

“If my situation has to serve as the catalyst for that, then I’d be perfectly fine with that. Because I know that nobody else will have to deal with the situation I’m going through, I definitely feel like there’s a need for a consistent policy,” says Kinley.

In the meantime, Kinley — a 6-foot-2 native of Memphis, Tennessee — has been on-leave, completing workouts at his high school, coaching and preparing for his future career as a Naval Information Warfare officer, a balance that he calls a “double life.”

While playing for the Midshipmen, Kinley featured in 40 games across his four seasons, totaling 87 tackles, 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 13 pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble.

He also says he’s been using this downtime to focus on taking care of his mental health and the support from his family, but he does notice some of the backlash on the internet.

“I see a lot of comments... ‘Oh, he’s so busy. He’s about me, he’s this and that.’ And that’s never been the case. And it’s hard reading those comments sometimes,” says Kinley. “After your sophomore year, you actually have to sign a contract. You signed the contract, basically committing to your service. So it’s like, if I wanted to get out of that, then I wouldn’t have signed that contract.”

NFL: MAY 14 Buccaneers Rookie Minicamp
Cameron Kinley has a pick 6 during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rookie Minicamp on May 14, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Department of the Navy has yet to announce the reasoning behind denying his request but did say the “acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker, declined to forward requests from recent Naval Academy graduates to the Secretary of Defense, seeking to delay their commissions,” according to the Washington Post.

Along with hearing of the denial, Kinley also learned that he couldn’t appeal the Navy's decision. For now, he’s trying to make the most of his leisure time before returning to Annapolis and hopes the chance to live out his dream isn’t completely over.

“It’s always been about being able to fulfill both of these dreams and use the platform of playing in the NFL to recruit for the Navy and being an ambassador for our military,” says Kinley. “I just felt like it was gonna be a great opportunity for everybody involved.”

AAE’s Mitchell Northam contributed to this report.