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Different paths for Army, Navy NFL draftees

Jun. 13, 2008 - 09:26PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 13, 2008 - 09:26PM  |  
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WASHINGTON A West Point graduate drafted by the Detroit Lions gets to put on his football pads right away, while a Naval Academy midshipman chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals is ordered to report to his ship for duty.

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WASHINGTON A West Point graduate drafted by the Detroit Lions gets to put on his football pads right away, while a Naval Academy midshipman chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals is ordered to report to his ship for duty.

Possible new slogan for the Army: "Join us and you can do both!"

The distinct approaches from the two service academies became apparent when Navy Secretary Donald Winter ruled Thursday that Mitch Harris must serve a five-year active-duty commitment. Harris, a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher with a 95-mph fastball, was selected by the Cardinals in the 13th round in this month's draft the second-highest pick in Navy history after a going 20-13 with a 2.51 ERA in four years for the Midshipmen, averaging 11.78 strikeouts per nine innings.

Instead of reporting to minor leagues, however, Harris is scheduled to report Monday for two weeks of school at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., then board the amphibious transport dock Ponce, where he said he'll work as a weapons officer.

The Navy's assertion: Events in Iraq and Afghanistan leave no room for exemptions for budding sports stars.

"At this point in time, the nation being at war takes precedence," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Karen Eifert said. "We need all of our manpower to be deployable to meet their service obligation."

Harris said he was surprised "a little bit" by the ruling because Army strong safety Caleb Campbell, a seventh-round selection by the Lions in April, will be allowed to pursue football while completing his military service as a recruiter and in the reserves under the Alternative Service Option program.

Harris, nevertheless, made it clear he is prepared to serve.

"Never have I applied for anything, and never have I said I'm trying to get out of my five-year commitment," Harris, a native of Ocala, Fla., who attended high school in North Carolina, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We are a nation at war, and I completely understand that."

Still, given the intense rivalries between the service academies, the Harris and Campbell decisions could have an effect on recruiting, even though potential professional athletes make up a very small percentage of the population.

"Army has redefined the Alternative Service Option to include playing professional sports," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "Our coaches are now operating under a significant handicap when recruiting head-to-head with Army. It may not be reflected on the playing field today, but I can guarantee you that it will result in a competitive disadvantage down the road."

Army's interpretation of the rules has also turned some heads at the Air Force.

"We had discussions about that," said Johnny Whitaker, spokesman for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Would their interpretation create an unfair advantage over the other two military academies? Because we basically all recruit our new cadets from the same pool."

If there is an advantage, the Army will gladly take it during these tough times for recruiting, at least for now.

"The real advantage for the Army is just the amount of publicity we get," Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecombe said. "When you think about it, who's the best recruiter for the Navy you can think of? David Robinson. He's called ‘The Admiral,' for goodness sake. The attention that we get in our primary demographic to have someone playing sports who's in the Army, that's where in the Army see the advantage in this program."

Robinson, before he became a superstar center with the San Antonio Spurs, served two years of active duty for the Navy after graduating from the academy in the 1980s. He benefited from a policy that allowed him to apply for an early release to pursue "an activity with potential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Navy and Marine Corps."

In 1986, Navy running back Napoleon McCallum played his rookie year with the Los Angeles Raiders while stationed at the Long Beach, Calif.

After amassing 536 rushing yards that season, McCallum was sent out to sea for two years.

But events in the Middle East have changed everything. Winter suspended early releases for professional sports in January 2007.

The Army might have to do the same. Edgecombe said the Army is re-examining its policy, which predates a 2007 Defense Department memorandum that is meant to apply to all the services. In April, David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense asking the Army to adhere to the 2007 memorandum asserting that "active-duty service should not include arrangements typically unavailable to others in uniform."

"We are reviewing the policy," said Edgecombe, adding that the review began before Chu's letter was sent. "I don't know when the review will be completed."

As for Harris, he said he's hoping his service in the Navy doesn't end the baseball dream he's had since childhood. As for now, though, there's not much he or the Cardinals can do.

"If Mitch is able to work something out with the Navy, we would love to have him in our organization," Cardinals assistant general manager John Abbamondi said. "We understand and respect the commitment he has made to the military, and we will wait to see how the process unfolds."

Associated Press Writers Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond and David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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