I was going to write today about Memorial Day weekend—what it is now and what it used to be when I was a kid and you could count on doubleheaders on the holiday.
But I think I need to say something about the ongoing controversy at The Naval Academy that centers on a professor named Bruce Fleming—someone I’ve never met but who I feel I know because I have met academics like him throughout my life.
Let me begin by saying a couple of things. I have been, at least technically, a college professor. I taught journalism—not sports journalism; journalism—at Duke for three years. I think my title was ‘visiting professor.’ I told my students to call me John because (among other reasons) I figured if Ben Bradlee wanted me to call him Ben when I was a 21-year-old intern at The Washington Post, there was no reason for anyone to call me anything other than John.
I enjoyed teaching. I really enjoyed the kids and I’m proud of what many of them have accomplished in journalism since graduating. I stopped teaching for two reasons: After the birth of my first child the extra travel became an issue and the leadership at The Duke School of Communications changed. The guy who took over—honestly I don’t remember his name and don’t know if he is still there—told a student of mine, Beth Krodel, that he wanted to get rid of me because I was influencing too many students to go into journalism instead of advertising.
Gee, I feel bad about that.
I’d like to teach again someday if I can do it locally here in Washington. The closest I came to that was several years ago when Bob Chernak, a vice president at George Washington, asked me if I had any interest in teaching there. I told him I would love to teach at GW: my mom had once been a professor there (music history) and I had taken two summer school courses in journalism there once upon a time since Duke (then as perhaps now for all I know) didn’t offer any journalism classes.
Bob said he would talk to the head of the journalism department and be in touch. Two weeks later he called back. “This is a little embarrassing,” he said. “The head of our journalism department has never heard of you. But she says you can submit a resume if you want.”
Actually I’ve never had a resume since I got hired by The Post right out of college. Plus, if the woman had never heard of me my guess was that my resume if it existed wouldn’t impress her.
There are lots of great teachers at the college level. I certainly encountered many of them as an undergraduate and have met many others through the years. There are also those who think that anyone who is involved in sports in any way is stupid. Every school has them: professors who object to athletes missing a class to play in a game or swim in a meet or do anything jock-related. They resent the attention successful coaches receive. They clamor all the time about academic standards being lowered for athletes.
You know what? They’re right: EVERY school lowers its standards for athletes from Harvard to the lowest-ranked D-3 school you can find. The military academies do it too. The rationale given by the schools is that athletes make the student body more “diverse.” That’s garbage. Athletes with lower grades and SATs are admitted for one reason: they help teams win games.
The question isn’t lowering standards it is HOW MUCH do you lower standards relative to the rest of the student body. To me the test has always been simple: If you start admitting athletes who simply can’t do the work and have no chance to graduate, you’ve gone too far. What’s more, if you bring in too many athletes who get into trouble—whether it’s through cheating or getting arrested or, worst case scenario, committing acts of violence—you have gone too far.
Professor Fleming, who has taught at Navy for 23 years, has been hammering the school publicly (he’s tenured) for years now. His main complaint (although there are others) is this: the school lowers its academic standards for athletes, especially football players, too frequently.
Let me pause to give my disclaimer here: Most people know I’m about to enter my 14th season as color commentator on the Navy radio network. I wrote a book in 1996 called, “A Civil War,” about the uniqueness of the Army-Navy football rivalry and how special the kids who play football at the academies have to be to play Division 1 football and graduate (which almost all of them do) from schools that are as difficult academically and militarily as West Point and Annapolis. I feel the same way, even though I don’t know people there the way I do at Army and Navy, about the Air Force Academy. So, I’m biased.
But the reason I’m biased is the quality of person I’ve met on the football teams at the two schools. Are there bad eggs? Of course. There have been Navy football players caught cheating and I disagreed this past winter with Admiral Jeffrey Fowler (the outgoing superintendent) when he did not follow the recommendation of his commandant, Matt Klunder, in the case of Marcus Curry.
Curry was a sophomore and easily the most talented returning slotback on the football team. He tested positive for marijuana during a periodic drug test that all Midshipmen take. His excuse was that he’d been given a cigar at a party laced with marijuana. (The dog ate my homework). The academy’s policy on all drug use is zero tolerance. Even if one believed Curry’s story, policy said he should be separated (expelled). Fowler let him off the hook.
Everyone connected to the academy knew Curry wasn’t going to be back for his junior year one way or the other (he was later tossed from the football team for an un-related offense and ‘resigned,’ from the academy and has transferred to Texas State) and Fowler just gave critics like Fleming a chance to pile on. In fact, when Fleming was criticized for having his piece—which suggested that all the military academies have become so mediocre they should perhaps be shut down—run in The New York Times a week before graduation, his defense was that he had been “shopping,” the piece since March—right after the Curry incident became public.
Shopping is an appropriate word. Fleming has been shopping his writing as the anti-Navy-establishment guy for years. He’s written at least one book and likes to tell people he has another one coming out.
I don’t think Fleming is anti-football or anti-jock (He uses one player, Craig Schaefer, as proof that he likes football players) or anti-Navy. I think he’s pro-Fleming. He knows he can’t be fired and if anyone at the academy says boo to him he can scream, ‘they’re out to get me because I criticized them.’
There’s nothing wrong with fair criticism. I think there have been times when Navy has pushed athletes along who had to cut too many corners to stay in school. Kyle Eckel’s dismissal from The Navy (he DID graduate) has never really been explained and just recently two more football players who graduated (including another star fullback, Adam Ballard) were thrown out of the Marines for cheating on an officer-training test.
Navy needs to look at all of these cases and figure out where it went wrong and try to do better. Let me say this though: I have met lots of Navy football players through the years. Almost all are exactly the type of person you would want representing your country and defending your country. They’re bright and tough and I would put them up against the football players from anyplace as human beings—forget the wins over Notre Dame.
It’s easy to find a couple of jock failures at any school and harp on them as proof the school is going down the tubes because of the evils of jockdom. If Fleming really wanted to make Navy a better place, I’d respect him for that. Every college in the country has weaknesses and could use some improvement.
I don’t think that’s what Fleming is about. I think he’s about calling attention to himself and making a few bucks while he’s at it. We all try to make money. To do it by publicly attacking the kids who play football at Navy is not—in my mind—an honorable way to go about it.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases
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