A decision about this week’s college football game between Navy and Air Force in Annapolis will be made today after “a legal review” is completed on how the game will be funded and staffed during the government shutdown, a U.S. Department of Defense senior official said Wednesday.
“There are some legal hurdles that still need to be figured out,” said the official, who has been privy to high-level discussions about Saturday’s nationally televised game between the service academies scheduled to kick off at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at 11:30 a.m.
The official, who requested anonymity, said that a final decision will be made by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who is on a four-day trip to Asia in part to commemorate the 60-year alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.
The biggest obstacle from a legal standpoint would be how to play the game without using government funds, the official said. While Navy’s athletic program is privately funded, the cost of the Air Force team flying to Maryland from Colorado Springs, Colo., would have to come from revenue generated through the school’s affiliation with the Mountain West Conference.
According to Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, conference member schools have access to between $2.5 million and $3 million in television fees and other sources that can be used at the academy’s discretion.
The Department of Defense official said that the Mountain West money “does boil down to a gift to a service academy, and we’re looking through the rules to see if it can be done.”
Though not considered on the same level historically as the Army-Navy game, the Navy-Air Force game has helped determine the winner of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy the past 13 years. Navy won last year’s game in Colorado Springs, coming back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime. Air Force won in overtime two years ago in Annapolis and took home the coveted trophy.
Whether the game can be played from a legal standpoint is not the only issue being discussed, the Department of Defense official said.
“It will be cleared at the highest levels, and it will be discussed why we should proceed or why we shouldn’t proceed and the decision will be made whether to go ahead or not based on some decision beyond just the legal review,” the official said. “There’s a significant number of furloughed workers and is it something we should be doing? That discussion will be had, and it will be had at the highest levels.”
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk reiterated Wednesday that no government funds would be used to host the game. Gladchuk said that not playing a game that is expected to draw a record crowd for what is the biggest home game of the season could cost the Navy athletic program about $4 million in lost revenue that it needs to fund 33 varsity sports.
“What I feel strongly about is that the decision-makers realize the impact of not playing this game,” Gladchuk said. “They’re going to make the decision, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t at least expressing to the decisionmakers the ramifications of this game not being played. … It’s not just football game, it’s an event that has a lot of tentacles. If affects a lot of people in a significant way.”
Asked if he could understand why playing the game might draw as much criticism as the shutdown itself, Gladchuk said, “I’m not in a position to calibrate the perceptions or the optics. I’m simply in a position to express the facts, and there are some devastating repercussions that come with the cancellation of this weekend.”
The Department of Defense announced Tuesday that all intercollegiate athletic events at the three service academies have been suspended until the shutdown is resolved.
There was a flurry of excitement Wednesday when a tweet was sent out on the Naval Academy’s Twitter account saying, “We’ll see you at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium this Saturday at 1130 or on CBS #CICtrophy #BeatAirForce.” An athletic department spokesman said “the tweet is erroneous. We don’t know where it came from.” The tweet was later removed.
It is not clear what Air Force’s position is on playing the game. Both athletic director Hans Mueh and sports information director Troy Garnhart have been furloughed and unavailable for comment. Col. Bart Weiss, the school’s acting athletic director, was not available for comment.
Maj. Bruce Vidal, who oversees the public affairs office at the Air Force Academy, referred all media inquiries to Air Force’s office of public affairs at the Pentagon.
Billy Walker, a retired brigadier general who left his job as deputy athletic director and head of physical education at the Air Force Academy earlier this year to become director of athletics and recreation at American University, said Wednesday that he understands both sides of the debate.
“I think there would be a lot of people objecting to playing a football game when you have other critical federal government services suspended for what could arguably be a lot more important things,” said Walker, whose women’s soccer team needed to cancel a game against Navy on Wednesday. “It could raise a lot of eyebrows.”
Walker, a former wrestler and assistant wrestling coach at Air Force, said he doesn’t think the football teams should get preferential treatment because they are being trained to become military leaders.
If anything, Walker believes that might be a reason for not playing the game.
“In the big picture, these guys are mostly going into a life career service, and sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t want to do and that’s part of being in the military specifically — you continue to learn to deal with disappointment and adversity, ” he said. “While certainly disappointing, it likely won’t be the biggest issue they’ll have to deal with in their military career, that’s for sure. It’s tremendously disappointing, but it’s not so critical that they can’t do it.”
Walker added that the uncertainty surrounding the game is “an administrative nightmare … but if it’s biggest adversity anyone experiences in their military career they’re certainly lucky.”
Gladchuk said that plans have not yet been discussed for possibly rescheduling the game. While a Dec. 7 date has been mentioned — neither team is scheduled to play that day — Gladchuk said it could present problems at Navy because “that’s right in the middle of final exams.”
The Midshipmen are currently scheduled to finish their regular season Dec. 14 against Army in Philadelphia.
“We’re just focused on this weekend and hoping to get through the weekend. If we don’t (play) then we’ll shift gears to Plan B,” Gladchuk said. “Right now there’s no Plan B. Plan A is Navy-Air Force Saturday, and we’re hopeful that it will be approved.”