The football game between Navy and Air Force in Annapolis will be played as scheduled despite the continuing shutdown of the U.S. government, Naval Academy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said Wednesday night.
“The secretary of defense has authorized the game to move forward with the condition that there will be no [government-] appropriated funding expended,” Gladchuk said.
Gladchuk said he was “relieved and appreciative.”
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“It's been a lengthy and very intense few days with the exchange of information, but that's what we do for a living,” said Gladchuk, who has been the athletic director at Navy since 2001. “We do everything we possibly can to advance the mission, and this is important to the academy and important to the community and we're just grateful to the leadership to allow us to move forward.”
The decision to play the game, made by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in long-distance consultation with leaders at both of the service acadamies, followed 36 hours of uncertainty.
The Department of Defense announced Tuesday morning that all intercollegiate sports events at Navy, Air Force and Army would be halted until the shutdown was resolved.
After assurance from officials at Navy and Air Force that government funds would not be used to hold the game — or in Air Force's case, travel from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Baltimore — Hagel approved the request while on a four-day military tour of South Korea.
Army is scheduled to travel to play Boston College on Saturday.
An unnamed senior official for the Department of Defense said earlier in the day that the decision about the Navy-Air Force game would be made after “a legal review” was completed on how the game will be funded and staffed during the government shutdown.
“There are some legal hurdles that still need to be figured out,” said the official, who had been privy to high-level discussions about Saturday's nationally televised game scheduled to kick off at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at 11:30 a.m.The biggest obstacle from a legal standpoint was how to play the game without using government money, the official said. While Navy's athletic program is privately funded, the cost of the Air Force team flying to Maryland from Colorado Springs would have to come from revenue generated through the school's affiliation with the Mountain West Conference.
According to Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, conference member schools have access to between $2.5million and $3 million in television fees and other sources that can be used at the academy's discretion.
The Department of Defense official said the Mountain West money “does boil down to a gift to a service academy, and we're looking through the rules to see if it can be done.”
United Airlines tweeted Wednesday, “We hate cancellations, so we're offering to fly @AF_Academy to this year's Air Force-Navy game.”
Though not considered on the same level historically as the Army-Navy game, the Navy-Air Force game has helped determine the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy the past 13 years.
Navy won last year's game in Colorado Springs, coming back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter and prevailing in overtime.
Air Force won in overtime two years ago in Annapolis and took home the coveted trophy.
Whether the game could be played from a legal standpoint was not the only issue being discussed, the Department of Defense official said.
“It will be cleared at the highest levels, and it will be discussed why we should proceed or why we shouldn't proceed, and the decision will be made whether to go ahead or not based on some decision beyond just the legal review,” the official said. “There's a significant number of furloughed workers and is it something we should be doing? That discussion will be had, and it will be had at the highest levels.”
Gladchuk reiterated Wednesday that no government money would be used to host the game. Gladchuk said that not playing a game that is expected to draw a record crowd for the biggest home game of the football season could cost the Navy athletic program about $4million in lost revenue that it needs to pay for 33 varsity sports.
Asked whether he could understand why playing the game might draw as much criticism as the shutdown itself, Gladchuk said: “I'm not in a position to calibrate the perceptions or the optics. I'm simply in a position to express the facts, and there're some devastating repercussions that come with the cancellation of this weekend.”
Both Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh and sports information director Troy Garnhart have been furloughed and unavailable for comment. Col. Bart Weiss, the school's acting athletic director, was not available for comment.
Maj. Bruce Vidal, who oversees the public affairs office at the Air Force Academy, referred all media inquiries to the Air Force's office of public affairs at the Pentagon.
Billy Walker, a retired brigadier general who left his job as deputy athletic director and head of physical education at the Air Force Academy earlier this year to become director of athletics and recreation at American University, said Wednesday before the announcement that he understood both sides of the debate.
“I think there would be a lot of people objecting to playing a football game when you have other critical federal government services suspended for what could arguably be a lot more important things,” said Walker, whose women's soccer team needed to cancel a game against Navy on Wednesday. “It could raise a lot of eyebrows.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.