Reporting David Elfin
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - Why is this government shutdown different from all other government shutdowns?
This one is different because it’s affecting sports at the Naval Academy. During the shutdowns of 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1995, Navy played 14 football games, five against Air Force, its greatest rival other than Army, as well as hundreds of other sporting events.
And yet, this time, the annual clash between the Midshipmen and the Falcons due to be played Saturday in Annapolis is stupidly on the verge of not being held. A decision about whether to play is scheduled to be announced by noon tomorrow, but it’s ominous that Navy’s soccer games (men’s) against Howard on Tuesday and (women’s) against American yesterday were called off due to a Defense Department directive ordering all intercollegiate athletic competition at the three service academies to be halted during the shutdown that began at midnight Tuesday.
While the Midshipmen and Falcons are continuing to practice, Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh was furloughed along with assistant coach John Rudzinski and most of the department’s administrative staff. That’s not the case at Navy because the vast majority of the athletic employees are paid with revenue from the privately funded Naval Academy Athletic Association.
Unless the shutdown improbably ends before noon tomorrow it seems that the most important game in Annapolis this year won’t be played – the Army contest is never played on either school’s campus — until Dec. 7 assuming the government is back in operation by then. That would also mean that Navy would face the emotional burden of playing Air Force and Army on consecutive weekends.
What makes the likely postponement or cancellation of the Air Force game so awful is that’s where Navy plans to honor its 1963 Cotton Bowl team, led by Hall of Fame coach Wayne Hardin and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach. The Midshipmen haven’t made that kind of impact on the national football scene in the 50 seasons since.
“It is inconceivable to me, beyond comprehension really, that one of the greatest weekends we’ve ever put together would be suspended,” said Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk. “The emotional toll it would take would be incalculable. The financial toll it would take would be incalculable.”
Gladchuk later told the Annapolis Capital that he calculated the potential loss of revenue at more than $4 million.
The Colorado Springs Gazette quoted a source who said there was a “50-50 chance” that the game would be played with funds from conference revenues, fees from the CBS television broadcast and gate receipts. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is sold out.
Gladchuk said that Navy could pay for the game with revenue from the Naval Academy Athletic Association. Air Force recently created a similar organization that could pay for the team’s travel with such funds.
“We could run our entire athletics program and conduct events as we always do without any government funds,” Gladchuk said.
And yet, the Pentagon apparently feels that it looks bad for the academies to play games while Congress and the White House are playing games with the government and its budget.
“A perception thing,” Gladchuk called it.
Obviously, national security, payment of Social Security and other safety net checks, food safety, medical research, air traffic control, mail delivery, and a myriad of other government operations are way more important than a football game.
And yet sports are an important enough part of our society, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Major League Baseball to keep playing during World War II in order to keep the public entertained during such tough times. Other sports, including Army and Navy football, played every autumn during that war as was also the case during the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. There were only brief halts to the nation’s athletic calendars after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Navy Yard shootings last month.
No one has died in the current standoff. No one will be disrespected if Navy and Air Force renew their rivalry on Saturday. In fact, there are thousands of troops stationed domestically and overseas who would love to watch their teams play. Why should the battling political parties spoil the party for those brave men and women and millions of other supporters of the Midshipmen and the Falcons?
Since the game can be played without government funding, it’s idiotic not to do so. And I’m certainly not alone in that perception.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.