Quandary at Navy: football vs. integrity

Quarterback: The academy's desire for a winning team led to a push to keep its star player for a fifth year

the desire to polish its tarnished image may have quashed it.

May 12, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy's football team was limping through its worst season in history last fall when the coaches decided to make an unusual request: They wanted the school to let star quarterback Brian Madden stay past his senior year, to play football.

The proposal would cost taxpayers as much as $125,000 in extra tuition. It would also require a rare exception to the rule that seniors in good standing graduate and head to sea as Navy officers.

But Madden was a ray of hope on an otherwise dismal team. And he soon found his request carried along by an impressive group of academy officials - professors, senior athletic administrators, the school's commandant. Even the superintendent, Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, vowed to keep an open mind.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect figure for the potential cost to taxpayers if a football player at the U.S. Naval Academy had stayed at the school for a fifth year. The correct figure is $62,500.

For months, school officials helped Madden assemble and turn in a formal application. Then, say people familiar with the case, they suddenly pressured him to withdraw it.

"Everybody did an about-face," says retired Capt. John H. Wilckens, a close friend of Madden's who was the team doctor last year. "Rather than create turmoil and conflict and debate, he just withdrew his request."

The Madden case reflects tensions at the military college over how to achieve lofty athletic aims without tainting a spit-polished reputation for integrity.

Football is the Naval Academy's flagship athletic program, the only sport with a national profile, and one that generates up to $2 million in annual television revenue. Its success, say athletic officials, is a symbol to the outside world of the school's celebrated toughness.

But for a team that once produced Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, last year's winless season marked an embarrassing low.

Madden looked to some like redemption. There was even precedent for keeping a player beyond his senior year: In the 1980s, the school granted football great Napoleon McCallum a fifth year, even though, like Madden, he had enough academic credits to graduate with his class.

But Madden's request came at a less innocent time for the school.

The academy was still smarting from scandals that had dulled the school's image and highlighted the role of football players in some of the most notorious misconduct. Over the past decade, several dozen midshipmen were thrown out for offenses including cheating on exams, dealing drugs, running an interstate auto-theft ring - even killing a teen-age girl.

Madden himself had earned an honor code violation - and an arrest - a year ago when he and another football player tried to steal a Baltimore parking meter as a prank.

The Madden case became a test of how far the school was willing to go to save a failing football program. In the end, the pressure to bend the rules for an elite athlete gave way - if at the last moment - to the desire of a scandal-weary academy to ward off another controversy.

"Our priorities have changed with the times," says the academy's spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Spann. "The emphasis now is on producing scholar-athletes, not the other way around."

Exceptions for athletes

A look at the Madden case suggests that the line between the past and the present isn't nearly as clear.

Varsity athletes do hew the academic and military standards of other midshipmen, but there are still exceptions: They eat at separate tables in the mess hall and are excused during playing season from marching in parades, a key indoctrination rite.

And the school still plays at the Division 1-A level with the nation's top athletic programs. Even in the midst of its worst season, Superintendent Ryan told reporters last year that he wanted the team to join the Big East or Atlantic Coast conferences, home to such powers as the University of Miami and Florida State University.

Ryan's declarations have struck some prominent alumni as odd.

The glory days of Navy football have long faded, as soaring NFL salaries have hurt its efforts to recruit the best athletes - athletes who would rather get to the pros without having to toil through a military college education and spend five years on active duty first. Since McCallum, just one academy graduate has gone on to a pro football career.

In 1987, James Webb, an academy alumnus who was then the Navy secretary, barred active-duty sailors from playing pro sports. He says his alma mater wouldn't find itself in the awkward position of being asked to hold athletes to different standards if its football team played at a level more in step with its size and mission.

"Rather than continuing to adjust the core values of the Naval Academy in order to field a winnable football team, it's time to adjust the football program to a less competitive format," he says.

Others believe the 4,000-student school must either lower its athletic sights or show more flexibility with athletes.

"I think they're living in the past," says McCallum, who left the National Football League in 1995 and now owns a graphics business in Las Vegas. "They want it all - and can't do the things it would take to get it all."

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