Desperate to hit recruitment goals and faced with a shrinking population of Americans eligible for service, the U.S. military is considering an initiative to fund thousands of athletic scholarships at the college level in exchange for student athletes’ mandatory service, according to an exclusive investigative report by Sportico.
The proposal, which Department of Defense leaders and elected officials have allegedly discussed for months, seeks to solve the military’s ongoing recruitment woes by tapping into the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s vast pool of healthy, physically fit young Americans to bolster the ranks of the armed services. (An independent 2018 study by the nonpartisan Council for a Strong America found that roughly 71% of Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are not qualified for military service, with obesity the primary factor in 31% of potential disqualifications.)
As reported by Sportico, the idea was pitched to military officials by Dave Maloney — a former college athlete from Auburn University turned military contractor, whose Orchestra Macrosystems has netted a lucrative deals with the Air Force. The so-called Scholar-Athlete Intelligence and Leadership Program (SAIL-P), Maloney says, is intended to not only supply the DOD with a steady stream of recruits, but might also rescue college athletics in danger of elimination due to budget cuts — programs Sportico calls “non-revenue teams,” such as tennis, wrestling and lacrosse. (NCAA football and basketball programs would be exempt from the proposal.) Maloney has pitched his recruitment concept as a “21st century pathway to service.”
The NCAA regulates the number of scholarships schools can issue to student athletes, and each sport has its own individual scholarship limit. Data published by Sportico reveals that, schools can offer just 10 scholarships to male swimmers and divers, despite an organizational average roster size of roughly 28 athletes. For women’s softball, only 12 scholarships are available for a roster of roughly 23 players. SAIL-P, according to Maloney, would allow schools to fill those scholarship gaps to fund thousands more college athletes — however, as Sportico notes, it’s unlikely any school would be eager to run afoul of NCAA regulations.
In an interview, Maloney claimed he and and a team of paid advisors that includes several retired high-ranking military leaders, already pitched the idea to numerous Pentagon officials as well as most members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, among others. An email provided by Maloney from James Seacord, acting director of the DOD’s Human Capital Management Office, praised the concept, saying it could “identify potential grantees who have sports star potential, but who also have high aptitudes and interests in things we care about (on the civilian side), specifically foreign language, STEM and cyber.” (The military has amplified its efforts to target tech-oriented recruits in recent years, going so far as to establish an Army esports team in 2018 after the service failed to meet its recruitment goals that year. Esports teams for the Navy and Air Force soon followed.)
An NCAA spokesperson, however, told Sportico that the organization had no knowledge of the proposal and declined further comment. Those who spoke on the record with the publication offered mixed reviews of the proposed recruitment concept. “I have a hard time understanding how you’re going to convince student-athletes to commit to something other than an athletic scholarship,” said Tanner Gardner, the chief operating officer for athletics at Rice University.
Yet, the military already offers funding to athletes via scholarship programs at its service academies, where a variety of sports are played across the NCAA’s three divisions — and college athletes interested in the military are still eligible to join campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs at their respective schools. However, the grueling time commitments of both ROTC and college athletics is often impossible for some students to handle; according to the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command’s Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, just 500 to 700 NCAA athletes comprise the 27,000 Army ROTC cadets on college campuses. “There is nothing stopping an athlete from walking to their closest ROTC to say, ‘I am interested in serving in the Army,’” Davis told Sportico. “It is a bold idea, but I think there are other ways from a recruiting standpoint.”