Has the East-West Shrine Bowl Left The Service Academies Behind?

Only two Service Academy players made this year's Shrine Bowl 1000 after none made the last Shrine Bowl. Is the Shrine Bowl forgetting about the troops?

Service Academy participation in the East_West Shrine Game is declining.
Source: Chris O'Meara

Since future College Football Hall of Famer Edgar Garbisch and two-time All-American Gus Farwick of Army played in the first East-West Shrine Game in 1925, the three Service Academies have a rich history of participation in the "Grandaddy" of all college football all-star games. Even recently, they were a fixture in the East-West Shrine Game.

From the early 2000s to the late 2010s, the East-West Shrine Game included a senior from Army and Navy in nearly every game. From 2002 to 2020, an Army player received an invitation to every game except for the 2016 game. In the same period, a Navy Midshipman made the game every year except for three occasions. Additionally, Air Force players also commonly participated. In some years, the East-West Shrine Game made interesting selections to get Service Academy seniors in the game such as:

  • In 2002, the East-West Shrine Game selected Navy WR Jeff Gaddy, despite totaling only 365 yards on 24 catches in his only season playing wide receiver.
  • In 2013, Navy WR Brandon Turner received the call despite only notching 40 catches for 734 yards and eight touchdowns in his career, with 22 catches for 321 yards in his senior year.
  • 15 career catches for 167 yards and a three-reception for 29-yard senior season was enough for Army WR/TE Patrick Laird to earn an East-West Shrine Game appearance. (But I have to admit, this catch was incredible.)

The best part of all was it seemed no one had an issue with any of these selections. The Shrine Bowl honored these players for conquering the challenge of playing for a Service Academy and contributing to their programs. It was a celebration of a college career that excelled in the classroom and off the field as well as on it.

For so long, the East-West Shrine Game recognized Service Academies' special place in college football and used its role as the elder statesman of the all-star game circuit to showcase this. Fast forward to yesterday when the Shrine Bowl released its "Shrine Bowl 1000" to showcase players on their radar. Two Air Force players: Camby Goff and Trey Taylor, were the only Service Academy representatives.

Army and Navy both had rising seniors that the Shrine Bowl could have listed as Army senior linebacker Leo Lowin amassed 100 tackles for the Black Knights last year. Navy defensive end Jacob Busic tallied six sacks and two additional tackles for loss on the way to a third-team All-American Athletic Conference selection. This year's Shrine Bowl 1000 omission combines with Army and Navy seniors not receiving invites last year and Air Force sending no seniors to the Shrine Bowl since 2018 to indicate a growing trend.

So how did this relationship get to this point? Like many things in life, there is hardly one answer. The East-West Shrine Bowl's partnership with the NFL is the catalyst for the Shrine Bowl's growing distance from the Service Academies. The East-West Shrine Bowl's participation in NFL Pro Bowl Week signaled the focus from a celebratory college football exhibition to an elite scouting event and the results show.

In 2022, the Patriots selected Tyquan Thornton 50th overall and made him the Shrine Bowl's highest draft pick since Jimmy Garroppolo in 2012. The following year, Zay Flowers became the first Shrine Bowl alum drafted in the first round in at least a decade.

The East-West Shrine Bowl is competing directly against the Senior Bowl. While they do not attract the high-profile names the Senior Bowl does, they are making themselves known as an NFL talent hotbed. As a result, the East-West Shrine Bowl is no longer the charitable celebration of college football's pageantry it once was but instead a significant event on the NFL Draft calendar.

Surprisingly, the next cause of this trend comes from the government. From 2019 to 2023, a memo from then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at the direction of President Donald Trump, allowed academy athletes to defer service or repay their tuition if they opted to play professional sports. In January, the 2023 Defense Authorization Act closed this loophole, forcing Service Academy athletes to wait at least two years before accepting a professional sports contract.

Football recruiting at the Academies suffers the most from this legislation, especially in the age of NIL. With the Shrine Bowl attempting to attract the best mid-to-late round NFL Draft talent Service Academy players are now on the outside looking in.

Sadly, this looks like another step in college football becoming more hyper-focused on becoming like the pro game, instead of sticking to what made it unique. For the record, I have no problem with the compensation of players as they bring tons of revenue to schools. My problem is at the loss of the tradition and pageantry of games like the East-West Shrine Bowl.

The East-West Shrine Bowl's past showcase of Service Academy seniors showed we can celebrate one's college career without wondering what lies ahead in the pros. A chance to end a football career on a high note. Now, the East-West Shrine Game is nothing more than a glorified NFL scouting scrimmage masquerading behind the tradition it once held.

***The 2022 Army and Navy Football Media Guides significantly helped my research. You can also look at every East-West Shrine Bowl roster ever here.