Bill might nix NFL draft for Army 1st-round hopeful Andre Carter II

A sudden potential roadblock has emerged that could prevent Army star linebacker Andre Carter II and other talented athletes at service academies from pursuing professional sports straight out of school.

The Military Times has reported that a possible change in policy for athletes at the academies emerged as part of a bill passed by Congress. Since 2019, athletes at military academies have had the opportunity to apply for exemption from military service and pursue professional sport opportunities immediately.

That rule, enforced by former President Donald Trump in 2019, appears to be on the verge of being revoked. Hidden within Section 553 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate on Thursday and is going to President Joe Biden’s desk, is language stating that a “consent by a cadet or midshipman to engage in professional sport is a violation of the duty of service”. Affecting the Army, Navy and Air Force, the bill states: “The cadet shall not be employed, even as a professional athlete, until he has fulfilled the duty of service assigned by the cadet.” That commitment, according to the Army, is five years on active duty and three years on the individual standby reserve.

The change is expected to take place when the bill is signed, which could be as early as next week. Carter and other current athletes at service academies would not receive a legacy exemption, meaning they would lose the ability to immediately pursue professional athletic opportunities.

Earlier this season, Carter’s NFL draft potential was one of college football’s feel-good stories. The star of the Black Knights is Mel Kiper’s No. 22 pick for the upcoming draft, an amazing development for a school that hasn’t had a first-round pick since 1947 and has only had two drafts since 1969.

Carter chose to remain with Army for his final two seasons out of loyalty, despite being a player whose talent could fetch large sums of money in the name, image and likeness market. He’s 6-foot-7, 260 pounds and talented enough to play at any blue-blood school. His family say a transfer was never seriously considered, even after leading the country in sacks at 1.19 a game in 2021. (He finished ahead of Will Anderson Jr., the Alabama outside linebacker who is the only OLB ahead of him in Kiper’s draft rankings.)

After two years at the academy, all cadets entering their junior year “confirm” an agreement with the school to serve after graduation and to refund all tuition if they do not graduate. If Carter goes back on his testimony, it means that after working so hard, he hasn’t graduated in nearly four years and has a costly bill to pay back.

Last Thursday, while Carter’s parents were traveling from their Houston-area home to the Army-Navy game, they found out about the potential change on Twitter. They were surprised when they read the Military Times report on the contents of the bill. Her son’s plans to enlist, play professional soccer, and later serve in the military may have been turned on their head.

“Here’s the thing that’s so painful,” Melissa Carter told ESPN. “You lead your son to do the right things because it is right. And it’s really disappointing that it’s not being reciprocated. Ever since he was a kid, his goal has been to go to the NFL. Every step along the way was on the right track until we’ve seen this article. That’s the part that’s disappointing. It’s not surprising that so many people switch, drop out or switch teams. When loyalty isn’t returned, it hurts.”

Army coach Jeff Monken only found out about the potential rule change after Saturday’s Army-Navy game.

“It’s just a way of knocking the rug out from under him,” Monken told ESPN. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair to him. He was loyal to this team and this institution. He could have left and didn’t. He still wants to serve. It’s not that he doesn’t want to serve. He want to follow the NFL and play and then serve.

“I’m 100 percent against it.”

Melissa Carter said it was her “understanding” that if the law were passed as written, her son would have to serve two years in the military. (Army officials explained that after two years of active service, a graduate could apply for an alternate service option.) Melissa Carter said passage of the bill will likely force her son to choose between two goals: graduating from the United States Military Academy or playing professional football . The family harbors no animosity towards the army or the coaches, but rather the political whims that have brought their son to a crossroads.

The family is trying to see what can be done. If Carter goes 22nd, he’ll get a roughly $15 million contract. While he’s projected in some mock first-round drafts, some scouts believe he’s more of a second-round pick. Regardless of the potential payout, the family say there was a lack of fairness that the rules would suddenly change days before their son played his last regular-season game. If the rules had been different, his path probably would have been different. The Carters frequently asked about the rules during their son’s last two years.

Monken wonders if the policy can at least be changed to allow those who entered the academy after the bill passed in 2019 to get exemptions for legacy issues under the rules they thought applied when they decided to go to the academy. While he is a strong advocate for upholding the rules that allow deferral of military service, he hopes that in the short term something can be done for Carter and those who entered an academy thinking they could pursue professional sports and military service put off.

“It doesn’t matter who set the guidelines,” Monken said. “We should do the right thing.”

Former Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, who helped initiate the policy allowing a deferral in 2019, said he was unsure how that section was incorporated into the current law that was passed.

McCarthy only learned of the potential change on Saturday while attending the Army-Navy game.

McCarthy said he was disappointed because there was evidence the deferrals were working and NFL executives were finally comfortable drafting players from the academies. McCarthy highlighted decades of philosophical debate in the military over whether to let athletes defer from duty to play. He said it meanders through famous Navy grads like David Robinson in the NBA and Napoleon McCallum in the NFL.

“You can argue about the merits of philosophy,” McCarthy told ESPN. “It’s something where we have more than three years of precedent. There are five former Army players whose service has been deferred. Four made it to the NFL and one that was cut (First Lt. Connor Slomka) who is today in Ranger Regiment 75. For now, the policy is working.

“Obviously these young men entered this season with the assumption that if possible they would be given the opportunity to fight for the NFL. Because of this change, I feel it only appropriate that the men who have joined the Army since the policy was introduced in 2019 should be incorporated into the existing policy.”

There are currently four Army grads in the NFL – Cole Christiansen (Chiefs), Brett Toth (Eagles), Elijah Riley (Steelers) and Jon Rhattigan (Seahawks). West Point is a crucial part of the story they tell. Monken doesn’t understand why Army grads who train for the Olympics through the World Class Athlete program are celebrated and those who choose to defer service for professional football are blocked.

“We’re so proud of these guys and how they represent West Point,” said Monken.

Andre Carter II declined to speak to ESPN for this story. But his family made his feelings clear.

“He’s so upset,” his father Andre said. “He was literally and visually upset by the insecurity. He wasn’t happy. If you’re in the military, everything is accurate. To throw something out at the eleventh hour when you’re so used to having a regiment . He’s in the fog about the whole thing.” Bill might nix NFL draft for Army 1st-round hopeful Andre Carter II

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