Can the Washington Football Team toss the Navy a lifeline?
Rumors are swirling that the team’s new name could be "The Admirals." But would that really be a win for the sea service?
The Navy’s public image has been taking on water. And some of its most notable advocates have thrown a Hail Mary in the hope of bailing it out.
The recent rumor that the Washington Football team might be called “The Admirals” came as a pleasant surprise to the small flotilla of retired officers who have not so quietly been pushing the rebranding.
“The Navy hasn’t had the best couple of years in terms of some of the publicity,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who has steered an online campaignsince July 2020 to rename the franchise the “Fighting Admirals.”
“It needs a little punch,” the prolific former NATO commander, commentator and naval historian added in an interview. “This could be a turning point for the Navy.”
The team is expected to make a public announcement on Feb. 2.
But does the Navy really want to moor itself to an NFL franchise that has been struggling on the field and that is constantly under fire? After all, The Admirals can’t pull rank on team owner Dan Snyder, who isn't exactly getting salutes these days.
And not every sailor is so enthusiastic about The Admirals idea. Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chief of naval operations and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unusually blunt: “Not enthusiastic, especially with this owner, who I have no use for on any front,” he said.
“I cringe at the headlines,” said retired Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who has a unique perspective as the Navy’s former top spokesperson who also played for the Naval Academy football team.
The ESPN headline he fears most? “The Admirals are on a losing streak.”
“I don’t want to hear that,” Pease said. “I was turned off by the idea when I heard it.”
It’s apparently not a fan favorite,either.
However, the Navy has a long history of embracing professional sports to help burnish its brand and grease recruiting efforts.
That’s especially so with its own athletic standouts, such as Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy as the Navy’s quarterback and went on to a Hall of Fame career for the Dallas Cowboys; or David Robinson, another academy midshipman and star center for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who was affectionately nicknamed “The Admiral.”
The service went all out with Navy football star Napoleon McCallum, depicting him dressed as Revolutionary War hero Captain John Paul Jones with the caption, "I have not yet begun to run."
The self-promotion goes for the Navy’s star turns in popular culture. The blockbuster action film Top Gun in 1986 was a boon for recruiting (and the film’s aerial coordinator even went on to be a four-star admiral).
These days, the Navy’s image looks a bit more like “McHale’s Navy,” the 1960’s sitcom about a bumbling crew during World War II that was ceaselessly plotting hair-brained money-making schemes and getting into trouble ashore.
Just look at the “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal, which torpedoed the careers of dozens of current and former Navy officers and is still playing out in court.
And if the Covid outbreak that sidelined the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t bad enough, the investigation dragged on for months after the acting Navy secretary fired the ship’s captain for rebuking higher-ups before he was forced to resign himself for a less than stellar performance on deck.
The hits keep on coming. A fire set last year on the USS Bonhomme Richard burned for four days and injured at least 63 people; the billion-dollar ship was sold for scrap. Then the USS Connecticut, an elite nuclear attack submarine, struck an uncharted “seamount” in the South China Sea, forcing it to make an embarrassing week-long journey on the surface in full view to get repaired.
Not to run up the score, but it seems that every few months skippers get fired for everything from “loss of confidence” to refusing to get vaccinated; the service ushered in the new year by firing five officers in less than a month.
Their head coach was compelled to deliver a pep talk. “You are the example your team reflects,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday wrote in a “charge of command” issued on Jan. 10. “Always do the right thing, especially when it is hard.”
And then there’s the shiny new Space Force, which successfully got Congress to back downon giving it naval ranks. And the sequel to Top Gun has been delayed three years (though it looks like it’s finally coming out in May).
It’s especially painful for Navy fans to watch their beloved service’s spit-shined profile rust, given its proud reputation as a well-oiled public relations machine with its own dedicated cadre of career public affairs officers.
The Navy’s top spokesperson, Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, says for now the service is officially staying out of the football debate, not wanting to appear to be choosing sides. If the rumors turn out to be true, however, there will undoubtedly be a lot more to say, he said.
To some of the Navy’s most polished champions, The Admirals could be a real winner.
Stavridis says he’s been a fan of the home team since he attended high school in Quantico. The “Fighting Admirals,” of course, is a nod to the “great World War II admirals — Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, King, Leahy,” he explained.
“In many ways, they won World War II in the Pacific, with all due respect to the other services,” Stavridis said.
But could the spirits of the Fighting Admirals rub off on the Washington Football Team? Fellow supporters have their talking points prepared. One of them: The U.S. Navy (not its football team) has a good record on the road.
“The nation expects them to go away, win the game and come back,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Frank Thorp, another former chief of information who now runs the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, which is dedicated to honoring the men and women of the sea services.
He thinks naming the team The Admirals would be a PR victory and is eager to help the franchise if it settles on “tying the naval connection to our nation’s capital.”
Thorp points out that Snyder has been eyeing building a new stadium in Southeast Washington, possibly on the site of the team’s old stomping grounds at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. It’s only a few blocks from the Washington Navy Yard, the service’s oldest shore facility where many battleships were once built (and current top admirals still live).
“You can obviously get underway from Washington Harbor and get out to the great Atlantic,” noted Stavridis, who also wrote a book about the history of sea power.
He’s got the perfect name for the new stadium: “The Battleship.”
The football team does appear to be thinking in naval terms. Other new names reportedly in the mix include The Armada and The Commanders. It’s also reportedly considering The Brigade and The Defenders.
“They could certainly come up with a worse name and they probably will,” said Bill Harlow, another former Navy flak (and CIA spin master) who helped Stavridis set up the “Fighting Admirals” website.
But some of the brass is lining up on the opposing side.
“I actually was hoping they’d keep the Washington Football Team,” said Mullen, calling the current name “unique” and “different.”
“It would be much better if they called them ‘the sailors,’” Pease said. “Anybody less than an admiral is not going to get all excited about it. Just as long as they don’t call them the drunken sailors.”
Some who wore the uniform of the other branches are already prepared to engage in some healthy post-game ribbing on Monday mornings if the franchise fully embraces the sea service.
For one, winning on the road just isn’t going to cut it, Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who is now director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. “Is that really that good if you always lose at home?” he asked.
Spoehr, who said he’s just about given up on his hometown team, also said he’s scratching his head a bit at all the claims of the Navy’s ties to Washington.
“D.C. is not big naval town, like Baltimore or Charleston,” he said. “The harbors or ports are shallow.”
What the real admirals all agree on, though, is that any “salty” name would be better than “The Generals.”
“The losingest team in the history of sports are The Generals,” Stavridis said of the Washington exhibition basketball team, “that sad sack club that has to play the Harlem Globetrotters every night.”
The Navy has at least one big NFL booster in the coach with the most Super Bowl wins, the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick. He, too, is a self-described “Navy guy” and would ratherbe an admiral than a general.
And it's worth remembering that McHale’s Navy, that fictional crew that was always in hot water, also never lost a battle.