The U.S. military is actively discussing an initiative, proposed by a defense contractor, to fund athletic scholarships for tens of thousands of college athletes each year in exchange for their mandatory service.
Over the last seven months, the proposal, which would not include football and basketball players, has reached military and civilian leaders throughout the Department of Defense and key members of Congress. It has been pitched as a solution to inefficient recruiting within the armed forces—which spend billions on recruits who fail basic training—and financial unease in college sports, where athletic departments face increasing cuts to non-revenue teams like tennis and wrestling.
Needless to say, the proposal would require a massive rethink for both intercollegiate athletics and the Department of Defense, two American institutions often criticized for their lack of innovation. It would almost assuredly draw pushback from some key stakeholders, such as the NCAA and its members. That’s before the task of convincing high school athletes, an attractive demographic to military recruiters, that a college athletic scholarship is worth a commitment to years of military or alternative civilian service once they have completed their schooling.
The idea is the brainchild of Dave Maloney, CEO of Orchestra Macrosystems, a Houston-based software and analytics company that is an Air Force contractor. In a September memo that has since circulated around the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, Maloney, a former Auburn track athlete, framed his plan as a “21st century pathway to service.”
The Scholar-Athlete Intelligence and Leadership Program (SAIL-P), as it is christened in Orchestra’s brief, suggests that DoD offer to replace school-funded athletic scholarships for every sport other than football and basketball at the collegiate level—NCAA, NAIA and junior college. Those athletes would have no obligations while in school, but would be committed to a yet-to-be-determined amount of service after they’re done. Orchestra’s role would be to provide the market intelligence and data analysis to help power the program.
“The Department of Defense just went to Congress with its initial budget for next year. It’s the largest budget ever, and yet we’re seeing a decrease in our technological capabilities, and we’re seeing a decrease in any interest in service,” Maloney said in an interview. “What does that tell you? Talented people don’t want to work at decaying institutions. You’ve got to gut-punch it.”
Last month the Pentagon requested a record $773 billion budget for 2023. That includes about $1.32 billion in “recruiting and advertising” costs across the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force, and billions more for the basic training of those recruits. By comparison, the 100-plus public FBS schools reported spending $653 million in scholarship costs outside of football and basketball in 2020-21, according to Sportico’s college financial database.
While discussion of the idea has advanced into the Defense Department and other parts of the government, it hasn’t yet made similar inroads within college sports. An NCAA spokeswoman said the governing body was unaware of the proposed initiative before being contacted for this story, declining to comment further.
Jack Swarbrick, athletic director at Notre Dame, was initially “shocked” when a reporter described the proposal, but suggested he would be open-minded if it gained steam.
“We happen to have one of the more vibrant ROTC programs in the country, so we’re already involved in the military,” Swarbrick said. “I have about 101 questions, but would I listen? Sure.”
Maloney said he and his paid advisors—including retired four-star Army Gen. David Perkins; retired four-star Air Force Gen. Robin Rand; and retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, who served as acting director of national intelligence in the Trump White House—have formally discussed the proposal with a number of high-ranking officials in the military, U.S. Intelligence Community and Department of Transportation. Rand and Perkins did not respond to emails seeking comment about their involvement; Maguire confirmed his advisory role but said he hadn’t been actively involved in several months.
In a statement to Sportico, a spokesperson for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the branch’s component responsible for recruiting, acknowledged meeting with Orchestra to discuss the play-to-serve initiative but added that “no promises or commitments were made.”
“TRADOC is reviewing the merit of the capabilities presented to address recruiting challenges; but there remains many unanswered questions to work through to fully understand the feasibility and way ahead,” the spokesperson said. “TRADOC remains dedicated to driving improvement and leading change to ensure the Army can deter, fight, and win on any battlefield now and into the future.”
To demonstrate the saliency of the idea, Maloney provided Sportico copies of several of his recent email exchanges with government officials, discussing the college athlete program. In one such email, dated March 1, James Seacord, the Pentagon official who oversees the civilian and military workforces for the Defense Intelligence Enterprise, noted there could be a point of tension between the “talent” college coaches desire and what DoD might want.
“From the geek perspective,” Seacord wrote, “Orchestra should be able to identify potential grantees who have sports star potential, but who also have high aptitudes and interests in things we care about (on the civilian side), specifically foreign language, STEM and cyber.”
Seacord later wrote that he had discussed the idea with Ronald Moultrie, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, adding that he believed Moultrie “will get on board if you get it figured out.” Neither Seacord nor Moultrie’s office responded to requests for comment.
“Even if this is not a successful venture, forcing us as a country to have a deep philosophical review of where we’re going and how we get there is always helpful,” Reggie Love said.
Maloney has also discussed the idea with Reggie Love, the former Duke basketball player and aide to former President Barack Obama. Now a senior advisor at Apollo Global Management, Love says that college sports and the Pentagon might benefit from “a little disruption.”
“We have not changed the process in how we build out new talent for the military in quite some time,” Love said. “So even if this is not a successful venture, forcing us as a country to have a deep philosophical review of where we’re going and how we get there is always helpful.”
The tech behind Orchestra Macrosystems has its roots in the Wall Street Decathlon, an amateur athletic competition that Maloney founded in 2009 to crown the fittest athlete among Manhattan’s financial elite. The event, now called D10, eventually expanded to other cities and relocated to Houston, where Maloney founded Orchestra in 2019. He said he secured his first defense contract a year later, appropriating the D10’s data model to assist the Air Force in the live tracking and evaluation of its war games.
As for his college sports idea, Maloney said he has briefed at least 25 Congressional offices, including most of the members on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sportico reached out to each of the lawmakers he identified, but only a spokesperson for Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), the former football coach at Auburn, confirmed discussing the plan with Orchestra.
Tuberville’s potential role has sharpened in recent months, according to Maloney, because of a suggestion from four-star general Paul Funk, TRADOC‘s commanding officer and one of the highest-ranking generals in the Army. Maloney said that during a Nov. 30 conference call, Funk asked if the idea could be beta-tested at a smaller scale before any wider attempt at national adoption. (Funk did not respond to multiple interview requests).
Maloney said he conferred with Perkins, the retired four-star general who ran TRADOC from 2014 to 2018, and Funk’s suggestion turned into a proposed pilot program in the state of Alabama, which has 10 D-I schools and myriad lower-division programs.
Why might schools like Alabama, Troy or Maloney’s alma mater Auburn be interested in turning their sports programs into military recruitment vessels? Maloney argued that his plan would not only relieve the multimillion-dollar financial burden of athletic scholarships, but it could allow schools to offer more aid to more athletes.
The average D-I men’s lacrosse team, for example, fields 49 athletes, but the NCAA only allows schools to offer 12.6 scholarships for the sport. Most men’s lacrosse players are on fractions of a full grant-in-aid, if they are receiving anything at all. Should the government adopt this plan widely, across multiple departments, branches and intelligence communities, Maloney said its scope could eventually cover hundreds of thousands of college athletes each year.
NCAA bylaws likely wouldn’t restrict the federal government from funding athletic scholarships in exchange for mandatory service. The military academies already offer scholarships to athletes who have made these commitments, typically eight years total with at least five on active duty. Beyond that, donor endowments fund thousands of current NCAA scholarships.
But the NCAA has closely regulated scholarship limits, and any school that exceeds the NCAA thresholds would be deemed ineligible for competition. Swarbrick said it was unlikely any school would be willing to offer scholarships beyond those limits, regardless of the DoD’s role.
That said, things are changing quickly in college sports, where new marketing rights for athletes, conference realignment, and successful antitrust litigation against the NCAA are reconfiguring its billion-dollar economy. Amid those shifts, the NCAA appears to be loosening its reigns. A new constitution, approved by the association’s board of governors in January, gives much more power to individual divisions, and a Transformation Committee is currently examining more drastic changes, among them the elimination of most scholarship limits. In another major move, NCAA president Mark Emmert agreed this week to step down in the middle of his contract, a move aimed at helping the group better adapt to its new realities.
Many in college sports, including Swarbrick, now expect a formal break between the richest athletic programs and everyone else. In that environment—where 30 to 50 top-tier football and basketball schools would likely hoover up the bulk of sponsorship and TV money—there might be room for models like Orchestra’s proposal, said Tanner Gardner, the chief operating officer for athletics at Rice University in Houston.
Gardner, who has discussed the proposal with Maloney on multiple occasions, said he isn’t sold on its short-term prospects. “We have funding challenges, and we’re looking at how to solve them,” said Gardner. “But there’s a lot of inertia in college sports right now, and I have a hard time understanding how you’re going to convince student-athletes to commit to something other than an athletic scholarship.”
He added: “I think it will require more of a crisis to become something that people seriously consider. We’re not in that crisis moment yet.”
Two years ago, it looked like COVID-19 might be that crisis. In the early months of the pandemic, after the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled and schools confronted the possibility of losing the entire 2020 football season, many athletic departments entered austerity mode, with Olympic sports bearing the brunt of that retrenchment. Since then, nearly 300 NCAA programs have been eliminated or suspended without firm plans for reinstatement, according to a database maintained by the college wrestling site Mat Talk Online. The chopping block includes 56 tennis programs, more than any other sport.
For some schools, the pandemic’s impact has been less than initially feared. Stanford, for example, announced plans to eliminate 11 varsity sports, then reinstated them 10 months later. But things haven’t rebounded everywhere. The average public FBS school spent $70.4 million on athletics during the 2020-21 school year, according to Sportico’s college financial database, down from $82.7 million in 2018-19.
The idea of the American military subsidizing high-level athletics isn’t new. For years during the Cold War, Olympic athletes in track and other sports served in the armed forces and encouraged to both train and compete. In 1997, the Army established the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which allows top-ranked “solider-athletes” to pursue international competition during their term of enlistment.
There are already several other options available to high school athletes interested in both college sports and military service. They can compete on varsity teams at a military academy like Army or Navy, or play sports elsewhere while going through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a time-intensive program on college campuses that offers scholarship money and lets students graduate as commissioned officers.
Thanks to the physical and mental rigors of college sports, athletes are an attractive pool of potential recruits for the U.S. military, but those same rigors make it hard to do both. Of the 27,000 Army ROTC cadets on campuses each year, roughly 500 to 700 are NCAA athletes, according to Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, who oversees the Army ROTC inside TRADOC.
Davis, who has been briefed on the Orchestra plan, credited the proposal for its “outside-the-box thinking,” but he cited some potential pitfalls.
“There is nothing stopping an athlete from walking to their closest ROTC to say, ‘I am interested in serving in the Army,’” Davis said in an interview. “It is a bold idea, but I think there are other ways from a recruiting standpoint.”
“Is it the craziest thing I’ve ever heard?” Swarbrick asked. “Oh God, in this business? No. Are you kidding?”
Beyond the academic and ROTC avenues, the current military relies on attracting massive numbers of recruits that get distilled into a qualified fighting force. This project has grown increasingly difficult following the drawn-out conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with domestic unemployment at less than 4%.
The four largest military branches project they will spend $12.7 billion next year on “training and recruiting,” according to DoD documents, a number that includes basic training, which many recruits fail to complete. That attrition is both expensive and top of mind for military leaders. Two years ago, the Army introduced a new model for boot camp, and attrition rates have fallen from 10.8% in 2020 to 5.5% in 2021. Funk told Army Times the improved retention saved the branch $350 million.
In addition to boosting the quality of recruits, Maloney said his initiative could help destigmatize what it means to join the military. Most of these athletes wouldn’t serve as ground troops, he said, but would work in support roles like intelligence analysts or logistics specialists, which more closely resemble the type of careers they might eventually pursue in the private sector.
The Orchestra idea remains a longshot, but its advocates all praise its innovative approach. And as college sports continues to change on a daily basis, they believe it could become a more viable solution.
“Is it the craziest thing I’ve ever heard?” Swarbrick asked. “Oh God, in this business? No. Are you kidding?”