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Ex-NFL star, Navy vet backs Trump waivers for military academy athletes

Thomas Barrabi

Count former Navy Midshipmen and Super Bowl champion Phil McConkey as a major supporter of President Trump’s push to allow athletes at military academies to pursue careers in pro sports.

McConkey served a five-year stint as a Navy helicopter pilot before signing with the New York Giants in 1984 at age 27. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., more than three decades too late to benefit from the Trump-backed policy shift, which allows military athletes to defer their service and begin a sports career straight out of school.

“I wish they had that when I came out,” McConkey told FOX Business. “I was a 27-year-old, 160-pound rookie that hadn’t played football in five years. Those were my best years, but I have no regrets. I got to learn how to fly helicopters and flew off of ships. That was pretty exciting stuff that I would not trade for anything. But I don’t begrudge any of these kids today coming out.”

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Trump personally directed Pentagon officials last summer to explore the creation of a military waiver process for star athletes at the military academies. Defense Secretary Mark Esper formalized the policy in a November memo, allowing academy students to go pro as long as they obtain annual approvals from the Pentagon and agree to fulfill their service obligation at a later date.

The president touted the policy shift during an appearance at the annual Army-Navy college football game in Philadelphia earlier this month, telling players to “go out and make a fortune” before returning to the military.

McConkey, who played six seasons in the NFL, is one of several Navy midshipmen to pursue sports careers. Other notable military athletes include legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy at Annapolis, and San Antonio Spurs superstar David Robinson, who won two championships in the NBA.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for midshipmen to realize their potential and their dreams by giving them the opportunity to play, and I wouldn’t even just say pro football,” McConkey said. “There’s some other talented individuals in not only other sports, but other arenas that, I think, if they have that special talent, they should be allowed to let that flourish.”

For military athletes, the potential financial benefits are sizable. The NFL paid undrafted rookies a minimum salary of $495,000 for the 2019 season. The other major sports leagues all offer minimum salaries of comparable size.

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The military waiver process does not have universal support. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis reversed a similar directive in 2017 that allowed academy graduates to explore opportunities in pro sports. Critics argue that waivers are against the spirit of service and carry a risk of injury that could prevent the candidates from fulfilling their obligation.

Under the Trump-backed policy, military athletes must receive annual approval from the Pentagon to maintain their waivers. Graduates who are unable to serve after a pro sports career due to injury can take a civilian post in the military or repay the cost of their education.

McConkey argues the waivers provide the military with other benefits, including a boost to the recruiting process.

“In the long run, I think it helps the Navy in other ways. I don’t think you’ll have a deluge – it’s not like Navy is going to all of a sudden become a football factory because they’re going to be allowed to defer their service or play pro football right away. I still think, if you’re going to the Naval Academy, it’s to become an officer in the United States Navy.”

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