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Salvaging the American Football Culture - 4 Quarters of Inspiration

[Editor's Note: It's a privilege to welcome a dear friend of mine, Ish Boyle, for a guest edit spot for today's Army Navy game. - Kevin]

I'm a football fan. I love that it's America's game and unique to our culture. Eleven men on each team battle with strength, and agility to advance their own position while stopping their opponent. Football requires strategy, physical effort and teamwork. Like many sports, it offers valuable life lessons. To succeed, players must be disciplined and work together. Being part of a team can teach selflessness and the need to sacrifice for the good of others. If you miss your blocking assignment, one of your teammates suffers, in fact the whole team suffers. The vitality and force of the game teaches athletes something that many other sports do not. Every play someone is getting hit. Players learn to take hit, and they learn to give a hit. They learn that they are not made of glass and they realize that all important reality- when you get knocked down, you've got to get back up again. Football has been so wildly popular in this nation because it inherently reflects values that Americans hold dear.

What has happened to our beloved American game?

This fall, we've been bombarded by hideous and reprehensible behavior by coaches and players at both the collegiate and professional level. As a nation, we learned of the unthinkable evil propagated by the rogue acts of a former coach. We were appalled by the cowardly complicity of those involved with the program. On Thanksgiving Day, many watched as an NFL player intentionally kicked his opponent who lay on the ground. Later, in the press conference, the offender had the audacity to defend his acts. Finally, this week, the NFL announced that a number of players with various teams in the league had failed drug tests during a lock-out related grace period negotiated between the NFL and the players' union. Amazingly, a majority of the players' cases are being dismissed due to it being a "first time offense". Essentially, the NFL knew that when the lock-out suddenly ended that many players would fail drug tests. So, they disregarded the first failed tests. Now, only a few three time offenders will be out for the season with no pay, a whopping four weeks, for certain teams not going to the playoffs.

In our love for the game, have we elevated those who coach and play to a level that they do not deserve? I am disgusted when I list just a few of the scandalous acts: the defense of innocent young children took a second string spot to the reputation of a program, kicking someone when they are down and defending it, multiple violations of the law and league standards through drug use- none of these are acceptable! This does not represent the game we love, that greatness of America and the values we defend, here at home and around the world.

As an officer in the United States Marine Corps, I am honored to serve with young men and women who train like the finest athletes. Like football players, they must learn to work as a team pushing themselves to the limit and sacrificing for a good greater than themselves. Like football players they must learn to take a hit and to give hit, and in training if they do not get up again when knocked down, it may cost them or those on their left and right their lives in combat. The differences between the professional athletes we glorify and our American military are extreme. They don't share an income bracket. Many American servicemen earn in one year what some professional football players earn in one game. They don't share fame. Nobody is wearing one of our soldiers' names across his back Sunday when he sits down to watch the game. And thank God, they don't share a punitive system. The American serviceman or woman is held to the highest expectation. He/she knows that rules and regulations govern their actions and those rules don't oscillate depending on who's in charge. Punishment is real and effective.

I understand the NFL is not the U.S. Military. But do we really want to esteem men who are held to the most minimal of standards? In the Marine Corps, we don't tolerate drug abuse. Offenders are processed out with other than honorable discharges. The expectations are known, and the standards are enforced.

This Saturday, there is one particular football game I am eager to watch. Competing are two teams who understand their role as athletes, but more importantly, they embrace their role as leaders in our country's military - on and off the field. I hope the nation recognizes this game! These two teams can help salvage our American football culture that has become so tarnished.

The Army/Navy game between The United States Military Academy at West Point, NY and The United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md is one of the most inspiring classic rivalries in sports. If you're looking for leaders from a football program, than look no further. They are on both sides of the field on Saturday. The lessons these players learn on the field is parallel to what they do off the field, and the life that awaits them upon graduation as commissioned officers in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Brian Stann is one of the many alum of this game who attended the Naval Academy, and was the team captain and middle linebacker. He graduated and served in the Marine Corps harnessing the discipline and leadership he developed with his teammates and translating that into courage and decisiveness for his Marines. These noble traits were repeatedly tested against the enemy in Iraq and under the most austere conditions. His actions saved American lives and he was awarded the nation's third highest medal for combat valor, the Silver Star. Stann's story is just one of a thousand that have played out throughout the length of the storied rivalry

This weekend's gridiron match-up between these storied programs was once a game that determined our national college football champion. In the 1940's West Point won three straight national titles. Furthermore, athletes from both schools received the coveted Heisman Trophy going to multiple different players in the nineteen forties, fifties, and sixties. This year the schools are having marginal seasons compared to years past. But the Cadets of West Point and Midshipmen of Annapolis did not sign up to play at these institutions for football fame. Many of these scholar athletes could've played in other stadiums where their status as a football player would've potentially elevated them above the normal rules and regulations of the university. The service academies are unique from most other colleges, and yet they are similar to each other. The academies demand that students give their very best: morally, mentally, and physically. As an undergraduate of the military service, each step of a player's path is designed to develop them as professional officers in the United States Military. Football is secondary to this focus of training leaders with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty. Unlike other Division I programs, their responsibility is toward an Honor Code encompassing the entire student body. There are no exceptions. The entire four year experience trains our nation's young men and women for leadership responsibilities awaiting them as officers in the the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps

The 112th match-up of these two programs has been documented this year by SHOWTIME Sports and CBS Sports who joined forces to capture the dedication of the players, their unique classroom experiences, and rigorous military training that will collectively prepare them for their lives in the armed service. The documentary, A Game of Honor, will culminate with this Saturday's contest and ultimately air December 21st highlighting their experiences on the field, in the classroom, and in various military training environments.

Let us direct our attention and love for the game to the two teams that play for the reputations of their school's program, and for their teammates on the left and right. They play for their brothers and sisters serving in uniform. They even play for the man who lines up across them at the scrimmage line. It's a brotherhood. Each player knows that one day it could be a graduate of the other service academy who provides fire support to fight through an ambush, a close air strike that routes the enemy, or a life saving "medevac" that brings a wounded warrior home. These athletes are true leaders and aspiring to authentic heroism. As a nation, we can choose to highlight true heroes in American football and through this game perhaps develop the future youth of our nation into tomorrow's leaders. Children and adults can learn valuable lessons from these inspiring teams. Their players are role models. They play for those who have gone before, those who shall follow, and those who are no longer with us.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or the United States Marine Corps.