The Army blew it. They implemented a policy that was designed to draw attention to the unique skills and talents of their servicemen and, in the process, make it easier to recruit soldiers to the Army by attracting positive publicity and media attention. The policy was enacted in 2005 because filling the ranks of a volunteer army was increasingly difficult. Caleb Campbell’s being selected by the Detroit Lions last April represented the fruition of that policy. Tens of millions of people were exposed to a guy who represented everything that was good about West Point and military service. Campbell’s engaging, humble, funny, smart, and a leader. I know from personal experience because I had the good fortune to train alongside him for the NFL Draft this past January-March. (Don't worry, I trained for comic relief.)
But you don’t have to believe me to understand what a success the Army policy had been. You only have to read the words of Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb in an AP article last month:
The real advantage for the Army is just the amount of publicity we get," Edgecomb said in an AP story published on June 13. "When you think about it, who's the best recruiter for the Navy you can think of? David Robinson. He's called the Admiral, for goodness sake. The attention that we get in our primary demographic to have someone playing sports who's in the Army, that's where (we) in the Army see the advantage in this program.
About face, indeed.
In March I traveled to West Point and spent two days following Campbell around from one class to another. I saw how hard he worked in class, at school, and as a soldier. Most importantly I saw that while Campbell was a very skilled football player it represented a small part of his personality and an even smaller portion of the four years he’d spent training to be a solider in our nation's military. I talked to his classmates at West Point and heard how eager they were to have one of their own representing the Academy in the NFL. Now, with one bad decision reached the day before his dream became a reality, the Army has stripped away that opportunity from Caleb Campbell.
Campbell is not going to fight the change in this policy because he’s a soldier and he believes his first duty is to his superiors. That’s admirable. What isn’t admirable is when a superior officer screws up and forces subordinates to pay the price for their mistakes. And let’s face it, the Army screwed up. Royally. They pulled the proverbial rug out from under an existing policy after several parties had relied on their policy. If Campbell was a civilian and he sued in a civil court based on this fact pattern, he’d win. There's a decent chance that if the right judge heard his case in a civilian court, the judge would issue a temporary restraining order to stop the Army from changing their policy after everyone relied upon it to their detriment.
As a soldier Cambpell could have an actionable claim because he relied upon an existing Army policy. As a sophomore many schools encouraged Campbell to transfer and play football for them. But the Army, and Coach Bobby Ross in particular, persuaded Campbell that he should stay because graduating from West Point would mean something, be a true accomplishment. Unlike other athletes from football factories who graduated without having to put any effort into earning their degree, Campbell, a soldier of character, would earn his degree and be proud of his accomplishment on his graduation day.
Point being, the Army dangled this policy as a carrot to persuade Campbell that he could have the best of both worlds, a great education and, potentially if he was good enough, a career as a professional football player. After his sophomore year, Campbell could have left West Point and gone anywhere in the country without owing the Army anything. But he didn’t. Caleb Campbell kept his promise to the Army—sadly the Army didn’t keep their promise to him. So in my mind, Campbell has an actionable claim, but he’s too good of a soldier to call the Army on their duplicity.
But what about the Lions? The Army informed the NFL that Campbell was eligible to play this fall in 2008. It’s why the Lions drafted him. Campbell himself knew there was skepticism from NFL teams about his eligibility and that’s why he had the Army notify teams of their existing policy. Now, interestingly, the Detroit Lions actually have a legal claim against the United States Army rooted in contract law. The Lions could sue the Army arguing that the Army is breaching their promise that Campbell was eligible to be drafted. After all, draft picks have a value and if they couldn’t draft Campbell to play football the Lions could have used their 7th round pick to take any other college player in the country. Not only has the Army pulled the rug out from underneath Campbell, but they’ve also screwed the Lions in the process.
Now, the Lions aren’t likely to sue the Army over Campbell because the NFL is patriotic. And patriotism in the NFL’s mind means blindly accepting anything that the Army does — be that claiming that Pat Tillman was the victim of terrorists or allowing one of their lawfully drafted players to be sent to war. To do otherwise would be bad publicity.
So now the Army has created a double storm for itself, they’re damned in both directions, fighting a two front war. They’ve managed to anger everyone without solving any actual problem. The reality is Campbell’s service as an individual soldier is much more valuable from a public relations perspective than it is from a soldiering one. You and I can clearly see that. But we aren’t Caleb Campbell’s superiors. Ultimately Caleb Campbell is a soldier. And, unfortunately for him, a soldier doesn’t get to choose which orders to follow.