USNA Alumni and Other Vets Push Back on Marco Rubio and Fox News Grandstanding About Ensign Cameron Kinley and the NFL

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

A month ago, newly commissioned Ensign Cameron Kinley, USN, was denied permission to delay his military commission to play in the NFL for Tampa Bay by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker. From the Secretary’s spokesman:

Admission to the Naval Academy is an extensive and competitive process. The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. When students accept admission and continue their education in this program, there is an understanding and acknowledgment that they will upon graduation be commissioned. Every Midshipman attends on the same terms and each has the same responsibility to serve. Exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare. Following discussions with senior Department of Navy leadership and in accordance with existing Department of Defense policy, 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.

Since that decision, ENS Kinley (via his father and other supporters) has been waging a public campaign to get that decision reversed, including a letter sent to his home state US Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), puff pieces by ESPN and other pro-sports outlets, an interview on the Dan Patrick radio show, and a tweeted endorsement from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL):

Then, Fox News got into the act with this segment, too. And the race card was also played, with this article being a prime example. So much for saluting and obeying one’s orders, but hey, this is the “new woke Navy,” after all. And he has even usurped the chain of command by asking The Hologram to intervene on his behalf.

A number of USNA graduates and other veterans have watched this spectacle unfold and have a decidedly different opinion than ENS Kinley’s supporters as to what should or should not be done – myself included. A letter was written and socialized among the group (I did a light edit on it) and sent to Fox News and Sen. Rubio this past week. Here is that letter in its entirety:

It was disappointing to see Sen. Rubio and Fox News jump onto Ensign Cameron Kinley’s bandwagon – and the associated media onslaught – in pursuit of his NFL career. The mission of the Service Academies is to prepare young men and women for leadership at great financial cost to the taxpayer, not to serve as a venue to prepare future professional athletes, no matter how talented. What you appear to not understand is that there was another U.S. Naval Academy athlete, Charlie Connolly, whose request for deferred service in order to be eligible for the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, was also denied by acting Navy Secretary Harker. So, Kinley was not singled out, nor was Secretary Harker’s decision “unfair” as Sen. Rubio tweeted.

Ensign Kinley and his agents have managed to start and keep his “story” alive for over three weeks with the help of Fox News. During this period, Ensign Kinley has been a walking and talking contradiction. He has repeatedly said during interviews that he recognizes and understands that he is not entitled to an explanation from Secretary Harker, yet at every turn, he demands to know why he was denied. As a newly commissioned naval officer, Ensign Kinley stated that he needed to get his story heard. Is this a proper action for a commissioned officer, or should he accept the decision and his orders and report for duties assigned? Ensign Kinley also repeats that he really wants to serve, but only on his terms which include getting Secretary Harker’s decision overturned.

Perhaps Ensign Kinley did not understand his service obligation when he was inducted under oath as a first-year midshipman. Perhaps Ensign Kinley did not fully comprehend what it meant when he raised his right hand and took the oath of office when he was commissioned as a naval officer at the Naval Academy’s graduation. Ensign Kinley also said he realized that the decision was the Navy Secretary’s alone to make, yet he pulled VP Harris aside at the graduation ceremony to tell her that he might need her help. This is yet another contradiction that likely constitutes misconduct by the newly commissioned naval officer as described in this article:

“Kinley’s actions violate everything that the military expects from its officers regarding the chain of command and good order and discipline. For a boot ensign who hasn’t even left Annapolis to be conducting a national media campaign to criticize the lawful orders of the Secretary of the Navy is utterly unconscionable. Would this be tolerated if we were talking about any other issue? Why should this be thought of any differently? Never mind Navy football; Kinley’s actions reflect poorly on the Naval Academy as a whole. How can anyone observe all of this and not wonder what on earth is being taught at USNA that would lead a graduate to think this is acceptable? This goes far beyond the worst stereotype of ring-knocker entitlement.”

While Ensign Kinley’s personal disappointment certainly is understandable, his reaction is quite different from Ensign Connolly’s, who told the Capital Gazette that he understood that a deferment was indeed a “request,” and that there were no guarantees. That article is linked here.

Ensign Connolly’s story would have made an interesting contrast to your perpetuation of Ensign Kinley’s supposed unfair treatment story. Ensign Kinley has repeatedly stated that he wants to serve but doesn’t understand why he cannot try to play football first. The governing Directive-Type Memorandum signed by former Defense Secretary Esper governing is unambiguous and states:

“When the Secretary of the Military Department concerned determines there is a strong expectation that a Military Service Academy cadet or midshipman’s future professional sports employment will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions, the Secretary of the Military Department concerned may nominate this cadet or midshipmen to the Secretary of Defense requesting a delay in the tendering of an appointment as a commissioned officer to facilitate employment as a professional sports athlete.”

Note the directive states that the Service Secretary “may nominate” (it doesn’t say “will” nominate or “shall” nominate). The decision is not dependent on what other Service Secretaries decide. Despite what the Navy football team leadership and the athletic director may have told Ensign Kinley, his classmate on the baseball team got it exactly right. The discretion on this matter lies solely with the Navy Secretary. For Senator Rubio to second-guess Secretary Harker’s decision is disingenuous and smacks of political grandstanding.

If you read the history of the changes to this policy over the years, you would see that former Defense Secretary James Mattis ended “going professional” before serving shortly after he took office in 2017, requiring a minimum of two years of service before being granted the opportunity to pursue a professional sports career. Refer to this article.

Congress codified this under Title 10 with any eye towards ending the constant changes driven by political vagaries once and for all. The Esper Memorandum essentially circumvented the law by allowing “deferral” of commissioning for a period of eight years, an interesting number given the average NFL career currently is less than three years. The ultimate irony here is that this is one of the few initiatives by former President Trump that the current administration did not overturn.

To be sure, there have been athletes from Service Academies who have succeeded in professional sports, but there are others who have not. Several have completed their obligated service first before going to the professional sports ranks. CNN Sports captured them in an article entitled “Cameron Kinley is not the only player to have his pro debut delayed by military service.” See the article at this link.

While he signed a contract for the NFL rookie minimum, this was contingent on Ensign Kinley cracking the roster of the Super Bowl champions, which by most accounts is a long shot at best. It is amazing that a story about a Navy cornerback (whose college career totals over 40 games comprised only 87 tackles, 13 defensed passes, and a single interception) persisted more than a single news cycle. Despite these unimpressive numbers, Ensign Kinley was routinely labeled a Navy football “star,” yet he garnered no American Athletic Conference position awards during his career, not even honorable mention. The sports media skipped right past this and just regurgitated this star billing.

While everyone cannot be a star, a more relevant question is whether Service Academies should be in the business of producing professional athletes at all. The American taxpayers deserve better than this, and Department of Defense (DoD) policy should reflect that each and every graduate will complete his or her service obligation before pursuing any other career. The time has come for the Congress to require the DoD to follow the law. The claim that intercollegiate sports are key to attracting candidates to the Academies is specious at best. There are thousands of highly qualified men and women who apply to the Service Academies each year who would be thankful for the opportunity to serve their nation and fellow countrymen.

Signed: Concerned Naval Academy Alumni and Veterans Who Have Served The Nation

Conclusion: Here is a personal note to ENS Kinley from one of the signatories (me). You’re a commissioned officer; execute your assignment orders and stop bypassing the chain of command in trying to get them changed – as you should have learned with the rest of your classmates while attending the US Naval Academy.

The end.