College Football Gets a Shutdown Exemption

Service academy football received special treatment during the shutdown.

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Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) weaves his way around Air Force defensive back Gavin McHenry, right, Joey Nichol (49) and Reggie Barnes, left, during the second half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 28-10.

The U.S. government has been shuttered since last Tuesday morning, the Pentagon has only "essential" employees (and some "essential" private contractors, which is supposed to be a contradiction in terms but that is another story) reporting for work. Government employees are still waiting to be assured they will receive back pay for their forced time away from their responsibilities.

Sounds dire, right? So what function of the Department of Defense received expedited consideration by Pentagon lawyers last Thursday? Service academy football!

You see, the Air Force Academy was slated to play at Navy and the U.S. Military Academy (Army) was scheduled to play at Boston College. To hear the Naval Academy Athletic Association tell it, cancelling the game would cost them $4 million in revenue that funds the academy's other, presumably money losing, sports. Can't have that.

The Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation, like its companion associations for Navy and West Point are "private" non-profit organizations. They are funded by a confusing mix of appropriated, non-appropriated and donated money. By pledging not to use any appropriated funds, and getting lawyers in the Pentagon to rule with unusual speed, particularly when the general counsel's offices are presumably working without full staffs, both football games took place.

But, how did cadets from the Air Force Academy get to Maryland for the game? The United Services Automobile Association, a private, for-profit insurance company that caters to the military and veterans, picked up the entire tab of $230,000. This covered the cadets' chartered flight and lodging expenses. It is not clear how West Point cadets got to Chestnut Hill for the Boston College game. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

It is heartening to know the time and resource-strapped Pentagon General Counsel offices had time to take up this important matter on an expedited basis. Even better, a private company elected to bankroll the entire trip shortly after being contacted by Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation leaders. Perhaps we could widen this to other federal government functions that have stuttered to a stop around the country – or to help other private organizations losing money because federal employees on furlough are not spending money so freely. What makes football so special?

It bears pointing out that late last week, Lockheed Martin and Boeing sent out furlough notices to large numbers of their employees working on government contracts. Government contractors are forbidden, by law and regulation, from donating their services to the federal government. Cadets from the Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy and Midshipmen from the Naval Academy are active duty service members. Even if the football programs of these institutions are dubiously considered functions of private, non-profit organizations, the football players are military service members and should be barred from accepting free flights and accommodations from for-profit corporations.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

It shows a strange sense of proportion that two football games could receive special status to circumvent the effects of a government shutdown being felt by so many federal employees. And, for those keeping track, classes at West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies were severely curtailed last week because of the shutdown.  

The battle between the political parties (and within the Republican party) that underlies this government shutdown is an ongoing debate about just what the priorities of the federal government should be. It's good to know we are keeping our priorities straight.

Ryan Alexander is the president for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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