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Department of Defense scraps policy that gives football players quicker path to pros

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis Visits Djibouti

AMBOULI, DJIBOUTI - APRIL 23: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis listens to a question during a news conference at Camp Lemonnier on April 23, 2017 in Ambouli, Djibouti. Mattis is on a regional tour of the Middle East. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)

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The good news is that prospective NFL players from the Air Force Academy should not feel alone.

Days after the Air Force reversed course on a practice that would have allowed receiver Jalen Robinette and some of his teammates to be drafted or signed as free agents (after they participated in various aspects of the pre-draft process), the Department of Defense eliminated the policy that previously allowed the service academies to determine individually whether to waive the active-duty military service requirement.

Via the Denver Post, Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed on Monday the order rescinding the policy that allows players from West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy to skip out on two years of active duty and play pro football.

On one hand, it’s fair and appropriate to expect students who accept a free education at a publicly-funded military academy to honor the commitment that everyone else attending the institutions embraces. On the other hand, adding that carrot (albeit small) during the recruiting process could get plenty of kids with NFL aspirations at age 18 to go to a service academy and hope for the best, even if only a small fraction ever realize their dream.

Then there’s the question of whether it’s fair, as a practical matter, to pull the FieldTurf out from under the students who were recruited under the previous policy. At a minimum, anyone who signed up with the understanding that an instant pro career was possible should be allowed to leave without serving two years.

Apart from the pros and cons of the changing policy, the decision will have one clear consequence: Kids who want a possible path to the NFL definitely will go elsewhere, which will cause the quality of the Army, Navy, and Air Force football programs to diminish from “not necessarily the best” to far from it.

UPDATE 10:31 a.m. ET: According to a DOD spokesman, the change does not apply retroactively to players like Ravens receiver Keenan Reynolds, who attended the Naval Academy. He will be able to remain in the NFL.