LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For college students who are also top-level athletes, it's the dream path - graduate straight from college to the likes of the NBA and the NFL. And until recently, that included students at American service academies - the Army's West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Jalen Robinette, a wide receiver for the Air Force, had a shot at the dream in 2017.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: End zone, it's caught, touchdown, Robinette.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So don't be surprised if Robinette becomes the first Falcon drafted in almost 20 years.
JALEN ROBINETTE: This could be something that happens. And if it doesn't, then I have a pretty good plan B, which is being an officer in the greatest air force there is in the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That plan B became a bit more likely when the Pentagon reversed a policy that allowed players drafted into the pros to substitute two years of reserve duty for the normal two years of active service. In this edition of Out of Bounds, graduating to the pros instead of military service. Nicki Jhabvala reports for The Denver Post, and she's been following this story.
Welcome to the program.
NICKI JHABVALA: Hi. Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How important was this waiver to these students?
JHABVALA: Very important. This is part of a 2016 policy. It didn't create any guarantees for them. But, you know, once guys like Jalen Robinette realized they had a shot at the pros, they spent a lot of time, money, energy preparing for life as both an Air Force grad and a potential NFL player.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know the reason for the Pentagon changing course?
JHABVALA: They say they're in the business of developing service members. This affects really only about three athletes across all sports at all service academies. So to take that away from those three athletes, there had to be a good reason. But right now, they're just saying it's because they're more focused on developing service members than professional athletes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's take a little bit of a look at the history here. This isn't the first time a policy like this has been rescinded. Do we know their thinking on this?
JHABVALA: Well, I think that's a question these athletes want answered, too. From the players I talk to, they don't have an issue with the policy. It's certainly the Department of Defense's right to enact any policy it feels is best for these service members. And they knew when they committed to one of these service academies that they would be required to fulfill some sort of active duty. But the timing has become the big issue, the timing after these athletes were told they would have a chance to possibly go pro - to have it taken from them is concerning in many ways because of the time and the money they put forward. But they don't have any clear answers right now other than the fact that the DOD simply can change the policy whenever it feels it's necessary.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's talk about Jalen Robinette. He's the reason this is in the news. Tell us about him and where his NFL future is at right now.
JHABVALA: So Jalen Robinette was projected to be a mid-round pick before they reversed course. He's the Air Force's all-time leading receiver and was one of the most sought-after prospects in the area really. But no team has signed him yet. And if they do - if this policy is still in place, he will have to be put on a reserve military list for a couple years while he serves his active duty, and then he might have a chance to return. But it's a big risk for an NFL team, and it really puts his future in the NFL in a very, very tough spot right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is it a big risk for an NFL team to do that?
JHABVALA: Because if they were to draft a guy that they couldn't use for two years, in their mind it would be somewhat of a waste of a draft pick. He is in his prime right now. Two years down the road, when he's been out of the game, it's not guaranteed that he will be.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Could this have effectively ended his career, his hopes of joining the NFL?
JHABVALA: He says it hasn't ended his hopes. But being away from the game for two years - if that's, you know, what ends up happening, it certainly reduces his chances. But it's not impossible. Players have done it before. Many players in the past, like Ben Garland, an offensive lineman who is now with the Atlanta Falcons, did it. So it's certainly not impossible, but it is much tougher.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What next? I mean, are we waiting for a review? Do we think that there'll be a reversal of the decision?
JHABVALA: It's a very hard fight going against the Department of Defense, as you can imagine. But Jalen Robinette's agent, as well as those of some other players who, you know, are dealing with this now, they're continuing to fight it. They're asking for their clients to be grandfathered into the old policies since, you know, the timing was just so brutal really. They're still very hopeful that something can be done, but it is a uphill battle, and there's no guarantee.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicki Jhabvala reports for The Denver Post. Thanks so much for being with us.
JHABVALA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.