CENTENNIAL — The U.S. Defense Department has rescinded its 2016 policy allowing military service academy athletes to go straight to the pros upon graduation.
Athletes such as Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette, the NCAA’s leader in yards per catch in 2016, will have to serve two years of active duty before applying for reserve status to pursue a career in professional sports.
“Our military academies exist to develop future officers who enhance the readiness and the lethality of our military services. Graduates enjoy the extraordinary benefit of a military academy education at taxpayer expense. Therefore, upon graduation, officers will serve as military officers for their minimum commitment of two years,” Pentagon chief spokesman Dana W. White said Monday in a statement.
White added that the Defense Department “has a long history of officer athletes who served their nation before going to the pros including Roger Staubach, Chad Hennings and David Robinson.”
Robinette, who is on track to graduate later this month, was expected to be a mid-round selection in last weekend’s NFL draft but he wasn’t chosen after Air Force Academy officials were told Thursday night that the Air Force wouldn’t allow him to go straight to the NFL.
Robinette was informed of this decision about an hour into the three-day, seven-round draft. The Academy said it wanted to let NFL teams know about the policy’s reversal so teams would know he won’t be available until 2019.
Robinette was the only NFL draft prospect from the service academies this year.
This change also affects Air Force pitcher Griffin Jax, a third-round pick by the Minnesota Twins last summer.
Robinette, who led the country with 27.4 yards per catch in 2016, had prepared for the draft believing he’d be allowed to play in the NFL right away because of a Defense Department decision last summer.
After standout Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2016, the Defense Department changed its policy for service academy athletes who are offered the opportunity to play professionally, saying they could receive reserve appointments upon graduation and start their pro careers immediately.
Although it was clear the Defense Department would rule on a case-by-case basis, Robinette and others believed this was a green light to prepare for an NFL career upon graduation.
Now, he’ll have to wait until 2019.
Reynolds, who is trying to make it in the NFL as a wide receiver, spent most of last season on the Ravens’ practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster for the season finale in January but didn’t play in the game.
It doesn’t appear Reynolds will be affected by the policy reversal, although the Pentagon didn’t immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press regarding Reynolds’ status.
Robinette was the first Air Force player ever invited to the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine. Starting in January, he maintained a full class load while commuting 100 miles six days a week to train with other hopefuls, including top-10 pick Christian McCaffrey, in suburban Denver.
The academy released a statement Monday saying, “With the release of the new (Office of the Secretary of Defense) policy which reverts back to all service academy graduates and ROTC members serving two years on active duty, all three service academies are under the same guidance moving forward.”
The statement said Robinette and Jax “look forward to graduation and commissioning in May. Their conduct exemplifies the character and dignity one would expect from a soon-to-be Air Force second lieutenant. Both of these cadets remain in excellent standing at the Academy and should have an opportunity to pursue their professional athletic goals after serving two years as officers in the Air Force should they choose.”
Jax, the son of former NFL linebacker Garth Jax, was drafted by the Twins last June following a breakout junior season by the 6-foot-2 right-hander who went 9-2 with a school-record 2.05 ERA last season.
He went 0-1 in four appearances at rookie-level Elizabethton last summer before returning to the academy in August. He is vying to become the first Air Force player ever to play in the major leagues.