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'America’s Game' shouldn’t be forgotten

'America’s Game' shouldn’t be forgotten
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The TV ratings for this year’s Army-Navy game were the highest they’ve been in 15 years. That’s the good news, despite the cold, snow and wind that made conditions miserable and despite a game that was far less exciting than what fans expect of these two teams.

But few people really watch Army-Navy for the quality of play; they watch it for the quality of the players.

The bad news is that, despite the higher rating, too few Americans watched the game: about 6.3 million, or less than 10 percent of people watching TV during that time slot. Most Americans have some idea of what Annapolis and West Point are, but very few understand the important contributions these institutions make, not just to the military but to the nation itself. Sadly — and concernedly — the gap between the civilian and military segments of society is getting worse.

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It is important to put the size of the Army-Navy game viewership into perspective: Last year’s Super Bowl attracted more than 111 million viewers; the final episode of M*A*S*H, aired in 1983, attracted 106 million. In comparison, this year's Army-Navy audience was paltry, a sad reflection of the country's attitude toward our military.

 

When I attended my first Army-Navy game in 1969 — as a plebe (freshman) at the Naval Academy — fully 75 percent of members of Congress had served in the military. Today, that number is 19 percent. Only 0.4 percent of Americans serve in any branch of the service; as of 2014, the VA estimated that there were 22 million veterans in America, or that about 7.4 percent of the population had served at some point in their lives.

The small viewership concerns me for lots of reasons, but here are my top four concerns:

People won't see some of the best examples of equal opportunity and meritocracy. Annapolis and West Point measure everything their students do — in the classroom, in the gym, leading junior cadets and midshipmen. So, when someone is chosen for a senior position within the Corps or Brigade, it reflects demonstrated achievement. There is no special recognition for "just showing up."

Before the Army-Navy game begins, the entire student body of each school marches on to the field. This year, as West Point marched on first, they were led by Pam Askew as first captain, the highest-ranking student among the 4,400 young men and women who comprise the Corps of Cadets. It is an honor she shares with Gens. Douglas MacArthur, Wesley Clark and Pete Dawkins and with CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race Paul calls Trump's pick for attorney general's views on surveillance 'very troubling' Focus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince MORE, among others of the Long Gray Line. Askew also happens to be the first female African-American to hold that position.

Viewers will forget the importance of amateur athletics. Virtually no one from either academy goes on to play professional football. That is not because of their skill or their size but because everyone who graduates from a service academy has to devote at least five years on active-duty military service. That means that by the time they finish their obligation, they are typically beyond prime playing years. And unlike college players who take made-for-football “courses,” cadets and mids are held to the very same academic standards as their peers. Even Heisman trophy winners such as Army’s Glenn Davis or Navy’s Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach had to complete their military duty before they could join the NFL.

The academies will be exposed to a smaller potential recruiting pool. The Pew Research Center reports that service in the military is becoming more of a family affair: Having a parent or sibling who has served dramatically increases the odds of a young person volunteering; and that service is being concentrated among a shrinking percentage of the population.

A smaller television audience means a smaller number of prospective students see the game, hear the commentary, and get exposed to the values. But it is important not to forget that the all-volunteer force is really an all-recruited service.

Young people will continue to miss the best examples of duty, honor, country. Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are different from most young people in college. They know they are part of something bigger than themselves, and willingly sacrifice the traditional college experience in order to prepare for risks and obligations that most Americans will never know. We are lucky for that, and for them.

The television commentators repeatedly referred to the contest as “America’s Game.” It is that and more. It is a reflection of what is best in America.

Oh, by the way: Army won 14-13. Go Navy! Beat Army — next year.

Steve  Cohen is an attorney in New York and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute.