Vaguely Troubling

By Lex, on September 3, 2010


I like Ricky Dobbs, senior quarterback at the US Naval Academy. From everything I’ve read,  he’s hard not to like. He’s a tremendous athlete who led the midshipmen last season to match their best record in the institution’s foot ball history, 10-4. He also has an inspiring personal story, having risen from adversity, burdened with an absent father and a drug addicted mother. He is a person of deep faith who knows how to play hurt. There’s a lot to like.

And yet, I can’t help but admit that I found this sympathetic review of the young man vaguely troubling. Dobbs, one can’t help but learn if one was unaware, is not merely a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, but a black midshipman. It is not enough to be a star athlete, a likable guy and an exemplar of both sportsmanship and leadership. Midshipman Dobbs must also be cast into the role as a “credit to his race”, which carries to me the sniff of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”:

(As) Dobbs became the starting quarterback during his junior season, as he gathered acclaim for his rushing yards and touchdowns — and the wins that Navy was piling up — his significance at the Academy began to transcend football.

“In the bigger scheme of things, Ricky represents the outreach and the recruiting that, ‘Wow, I can go play football and get a good education. I can serve,’” Cmd. Master Chief Evelyn “Vonn” Banks said. “Part of our development is to develop good American citizens as well, so Ricky represents so many more things than the quarterback for football.”

One area in which Dobbs has not always excelled in Annapolis is academics. Dobbs, who is majoring in general science, has struggled at times with his coursework, and his academic standing ranks near the bottom of his class, according to several USNA teachers who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the topic.

Nevertheless, Dobbs is a black midshipman in a high-profile position. As such, the sensation he has created also carries a hefty impact…

Maryland Civil Rights Director Carl O. Snowden, whose father was a butcher at the Academy and who has been critical of the Academy’s approach to race relations, also sees Dobbs’s role as a positive. “The symbolism that [Dobbs] represents cannot be overstated. The fact of the matter is that his presence and his high profile will do more to lift up the public relations and good will for the Academy than anything that they could hope to create…”

For his part, Dobbs — who was elected vice president of the USNA Class of 2011 — said he is proud to be able to send a message to other minorities that, like him, they can thrive at the Naval Academy.

Racking up yardage and touchdowns is critical for a football player.  But Midshipman Dobbs is more than just a football player, much more: He is an officer candidate in the United States Navy. One who happens to play football.

Gridiron stats aside, to claim that a midshipman is “thriving” at the Academy while struggling to keep his head above the academic water is perhaps to place rather too much stress on the “physical” element of the Academy’s core mission and perhaps too little stress on what is, after all, the raison d’etre of an institute of higher learning, especially a public institution funded by the federal taxpayer:

To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character, to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

Two out of three will get a baseball slugger into Cooperstown , but the Academy’s mission reads “morally, mentally and physically.” There are no “or” statements therein. And it stings a little to learn that Midshipman Dobbs would very much like to defer his career of naval service until after his professional football playing years are done:

Dobbs has publicly stated his plan to run for president of the United States in 2040, a thought bemusing to friends and strangers alike. Until then, he has his sights set on the NFL. Naval Academy graduates are required to serve five years active duty upon their commission into the fleet. However, after two years, they can turn their remaining three years active into six years in the reserve. Instead, Dobbs would like to switch his service requirements so that he could initially serve in the reserve while trying to make it in the NFL and then fulfill his time on active duty. He hopes to meet with Navy Secretary Ray Maybus to discuss his idea.

SecNav is unlikely to approve Dobbs’ request, although I can understand how the alluring the notion of playing professional football must be – the chance for a true competitor to play at that level would be almost irresistible.

But not every midshipman – not even  the diverse ones – can be star football players. And those  who struggle to finish at the bottom of their class in general science could not otherwise be plausibly portrayed as model officer candidates.

It’s often too easy, when trying to do the right thing in a big way, to find oneself regretting the obstacles placed in our path by principles that seem individually unimportant. Doing so can lead us down a slippery slope of compromise to things that really matter in aggregate.

I wish Navy football another record season, and Midshipman Dobbs every success as a football player and naval officer. I also hope he keeps his head in the books.

I would like Navy to win football games. We need Navy to fight and win the nation’s wars.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, USNA

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