President Trump touted a policy shift that provides top athletes at military service academies with a direct pathway to professional sports during his annual appearance at the Army-Navy football game on Saturday.
Prior to the 120th matchup between the two rivals in Philadelphia, Trump addressed both teams regarding a memo signed last month by Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The directive said the military athletes defer their service and play pro sports immediately after graduation, so long as they receive approval from the Pentagon and agree to fulfill their obligation at a later date.
“You’ll go out and make a fortune, and after you are all finished with your professional career you will go and you will serve. And everybody is thrilled,” Trump said in the Army locker room. “That means you can go out and do whatever you want.”
Trump advocated for the creation of a military waiver program for top athletes for months. The president asked Pentagon officials last June to explore the creation of a pathway, arguing at the time that the deferments would allow military athletes to “take advantage of their athletic talents during which playing professional sports is realistically possible.”
If granted, the military waivers would be subject to annual reviews. Athletes who are deemed medically unfit to return to military service after their pro sports careers can take civilian posts within the military or repay the cost of their education, according to Esper’s memo.
Former Army football star Brett Toth was among the first West Point attendees to make use of the program. He received a military waiver last August for his second year of service and subsequently signed a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was later released, but signed another deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
The NFL’s minimum salary for an undrafted rookie was $495,000 for the 2019 regular season.
The U.S. military academies have produced several professional athletes over the last several decades. Legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and former San Antonio Spurs superstar David Robinson each served in the Navy.
Other notable athletes with military service backgrounds include former New York Giants wide receiver Phil McConkey (Navy) and current Minnesota Vikings long snapper Austin Cutting (Air Force).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.