Football carries clout at Navy

But critics say Mid players are held to looser standards

December 10, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

If Navy upsets Boston College in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on New Year's weekend, thousands of midshipmen who attend -- spending up to $400 in travel funds supplied by the Naval Academy -- could get an extra weekend off, according to tradition.

The football program will get priceless publicity, and the school's athletic department will collect at least a million-dollar windfall that could push profits above last year's $6.2 million.

Win or lose, Paul Johnson will walk off the field as one of college football's highest-paid coaches, after getting a hefty raise on Thursday.

Football, and the money that comes with it, is an integral part of academy life. But at a school whose primary mission is to produce combat leaders, some recent off-the-field conduct has prompted critics to wonder whether too much emphasis is placed on football and whether players are held to a different standard -- one that is easier and more privileged -- than other midshipmen.

"Frankly, I hope that America is being defended by the best Navy men and women that the academy can get and not by some doofus that could catch a football," said Murray Sperber, a former English professor at Indiana University who has been an ardent critic of how far colleges go to make exceptions for athletes.

The team's reputation has been blemished in recent months by two highly public rape trials, former star fullback Kyle Eckel's involuntary expulsion from the military, and the revelation that seven players used steroids in early 2005. Five of those players were almost immediately allowed to participate in spring practice and scrimmages, hobnob with President Bush, and play in 2005's bowl-winning season.

Navy's troubles are minor compared to those of some other top football programs, and the team's 98 percent graduation rate ranks it first among all 119 Division I-A teams.

Through an academy spokesman, top athletic and administrative officials declined to be interviewed for this article, and in a written response to questions, school officials declined to discuss any specific disciplinary cases, citing privacy restrictions.

"All midshipmen are held to the same high standards and requirements and are held accountable for their actions," the statement read. "It is highly unusual when one of our 4,200 midshipmen is alleged to fall short of the standards we seek to imbue in our future officers. In those rare instances where there are allegations of misconduct, we take them seriously, investigate fully and act on the facts."

Last year, the team earned $16.6 million in revenue, almost three times the amount taken in during 2002, the last losing season before Johnson arrived and pioneered a football renaissance. That season, the overall athletic program lost more than $3 million, but Navy's winning ways -- including four consecutive bowl appearances and victories over Army -- have led to a sharp turnaround. In the 2004-2005 academic year, varsity sports at the academy generated a $3 million profit.

Navy football helps finance the school's 30 other varsity sports, a huge commitment for a school with an enrollment around 4,200. According to financial reports compiled annually for the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, the football program is the only varsity sport in the black.

The team's overall revenue also compares well with other big college programs. In the 2004-2005 academic year, the Maryland Terrapins football team had about $9.3 million in revenue, compared with Navy's almost $15 million.

Johnson's salary of at least $1.5 million, incentives included, compares with coaches' pay at perennial contenders Alabama, LSU and Texas.

Despite its 9-3 record and bowl date, Navy is no longer the first-rank football power it once was. In the 1950s and '60s, the academy nurtured national title aspirations, competing in the Sugar, Cotton and Orange bowls and fielding two Heisman Trophy winners: halfback Joe Bellino in 1960 and quarterback Roger Staubach in 1963.

Today, the Sagarin ratings index -- one of six computer rankings used by the Bowl Championship Series -- ranks Navy 43rd among Division I football programs, and rates its strength of schedule just 91st.

Still, for a school that does not award athletic scholarships and rarely produces a pro prospect, it does well. The Terps, also bowl-bound with an 8-4 record, are ranked 48th by Sagarin through the games of Dec. 2.

During the fall, life at the academy to a certain degree revolves around Navy's wins and losses. Attendance at home games and pep rallies is mandatory, with sometimes severe penalties levied on those who don't show. Spirited cheering can mean a weekend off, and for plebes, a win can mean a break from having to run everywhere they go in the dormitory.

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