Someone in the Pentagon owes a thank you note to Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers.
While the biggest story of the weekend revolved around the Wisconsin-based soap opera As the Favre Turns, the U.S. Army was quietly trying to sweep a public relations mess under the rug after once again mishandling a story involving the National Football League.
That’s because, on the eve of training camp, the powers that be in the Department of the Army decided to call an audible and force rookie safety Caleb Campbell, who was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round of the NFL draft, to head for the showers so that his alter ego, 2nd Lt. Caleb Campbell, could returned back to West Point immediately for duty.
Surely, there was an explanation, right? No one would object if it turned out that Campbell was in a high-demand branch the Army was understaffed in and was needed immediately to deploy in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Football is supremely popular in our culture, but not to the point that anyone expects troops to be picked off the battle lines in favor of playing special teams and garbage time for a perennial loser in Detroit. All it would take is one high-ranking officer standing in front of a podium explaining that this was the case and no one would have thought twice about it.
But much like the Pat Tillman nightmare, the Army assessed the situation, figured out the worst possible way it could play out and then called that play.
The Army can spend millions of dollars sponsoring Mark Martin’s NASCAR team, but the decision makers couldn’t live with the idea of free publicity and the public support that comes with the once-in-a-lifetime chance for a Soldier to make headlines every Sunday as millions watched the feel-good story play out in our country’s most popular sport. (Seriously, think about it – if announcers can’t go 10 minutes without mentioning the relationship between Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and mildly talented Jessica Simpson, then they most certainly would have pounced over the chance to gush over an Army lieutenant wearing a new uniform when Detroit came to town).
So less than 24 hours before Campbell was due to report to the Lions training camp, he was informed by his agent that the rules had changed and he was no longer allowed to pursue his childhood dream. Turn in your helmet and playbook and pick up your duffle bag and beret.
Where would he be reporting? To an infantry unit in Iraq? A military intelligence team in Afghanistan? No, he’s heading back to West Point to be a special assistant to the football team. Why give the kid the chance to reach millions of fans who may never otherwise even consider the U.S. Army when he could be a glorified ballboy for a three-win doormat like the Black Knights football team (who hasn’t had a winning record since 1996)?
Here’s the problem with the situation – in 2005, the Army passed a rule that if a cadet was an exceptional enough athlete to be signed by a professional team, he or she could pursue that career while serving as a recruiter for the Army. And since his sophomore year, Campbell has heard from West Point and above that there was a very real chance he’d be a part of the program.
For three years everyone has been telling him this could happen, and then the Lions take a chance on the kid because they’ve been assured the Army will make him available. So naturally, with the game on the line, Lucy pulled the football out from under Charlie Brown and everyone loses.
The part that doesn’t make any sense is that the Army is still very much involved in sports. Four years ago, a half dozen Soldiers participated in the Olympics, and rest assured that a select few will once again represent their country in a couple weeks in China. There are also All-Army teams competing in sports such as soccer, basketball and boxing, where Soldiers put their careers on hold to compete in inter-service competitions that no one outside of that gym or soccer field will ever hear about.
It’s okay for those Soldiers to live their dream, but not Campbell, who is apparently getting punished for nothing more than being talented. He’ll quietly serve out his commitment by serving orange slices at halftime to a college laughingstock because that’s where his chain of command feels he’ll best represent his country. And people think Lions general manager Matt Millen is the clueless one.
Brian Murphy is an award-winning sportswriter, and still doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.