While military service academies have long competed in college sports, they have mostly emphasized training future officers rather than serving as a steppingstone for athletes seeking a career in professional leagues.
Under a new Department of Defense policy promoted by President Trump on Saturday at the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, the few athletes who are good enough to catch the attention of the pros may not need to choose one path instead of the other.
The new rules, announced earlier this year and approved in a memo signed last month by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, allow athletes with a realistic shot at playing professionally to seek a delay in their military service obligations, a requirement that often lasts for about five years after graduation.
Trump and Esper visited with the Army and Navy players in each locker room before their annual rivalry game, which Navy won 31-7, and told them that the new rules would help them play after graduating.
“You’ll go out and make a fortune, and after you are all finished with your professional career you will go and you will serve. And everybody is thrilled,” Trump said in the Army locker room. “That means you can go out and do whatever you want.”
The Department of Defense’s policy for its athletes seeking pro careers has shifted back and forth in recent years, with athletes required to pay back the costs of attending their academy if they immediately play professionally without earning a waiver.
Keenan Reynolds, a Navy quarterback who threw for 1,203 yards and rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in his senior season in 2015, was drafted in 2016 by the Baltimore Ravens and received a waiver to join the team under relaxed rules from the Obama administration. But the Pentagon reversed itself a year later under the new Trump administration, saying before the 2017 N.F.L. draft that it would not grant waivers in other cases.
Trump formally ordered the Department of Defense this summer to again soften the rules after mentioning the idea while visiting with the Army Black Knights at the White House to celebrate their win over Navy last season.
Trump told the Army players on Saturday that his decision came after speaking with their coach, Jeff Monken.
“The last time I saw your coach, he said, ‘What about a waiver?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about a waiver?’ ” Trump said. “He said some of these guys could play in the N.F.L., you could play for the Yankees, you could play for the Mets, you could play basketball, you could play whatever.”
While the change certainly creates better prospects for players to be drafted and play for top leagues, the policy will directly affect few players and is not likely to dramatically improve the teams of the academies in any sport. The waivers do not change the initial requirements to get into each academy, which are often more stringent than those for universities with powerhouse athletic programs that are not connected to the military and where coaches recruit players with surefire professional prospects.
The most well-known football player to emerge from a service academy is perhaps Roger Staubach, a quarterback for Navy who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 and spent four years serving, including a tour in Vietnam, before joining the Dallas Cowboys and winning two Super Bowls in 11 seasons in a Hall of Fame career.
Staubach was drafted by the Cowboys in 1964 — in the 10th round of the N.F.L. draft, likely because of the service obligations — and did not play for the team until 1969.
“They knew that it was a long shot for me to ever play football again,” Staubach said last year.
Only one player was selected from a service academy during the N.F.L. draft in April: Austin Cutting, a long snapper from Air Force who was taken by the Minnesota Vikings with the 250th of 254 picks. Cutting agreed to serve as a recruiter while playing for the team, according to the Pioneer Press, and he has played one snap for the Vikings this season.
Although Cutting was drafted before the rules were changed, his role might be precisely what Pentagon officials were envisioning for future athletes in the academies.
In the memo issued last month, Esper said that there “is a strong expectation that a Military Service Academy cadet or midshipman’s future professional sports employment will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions.”
Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Philadelphia.