Since 1976, there have been 17 federal government shutdowns, not including the current one. Yes, 17. Of those, 14 came during college football season. During those 14 shutdowns, the service academies – Army, Navy and Air Force – were scheduled to play 36 football games. All 36 went off as scheduled.
Not a single cancellation.
But when the government shut down on Tuesday, the Department of Defense ordered the suspension of all athletic competitions at the service academies, which included two football games scheduled for Saturday: Air Force at Navy and Army at Boston College. Wednesday night, the Associated Press reported that an unnamed defense official says this weekend's games will go on as scheduled, but that still doesn't explain the DOD's initial call for the suspension of all athletic competition.
There are two schools of thought here why the initial decision to suspend games was made:
The first is the DOD didn't want to send a message that while some government workers are furloughed, football goes on. This is essentially the reason Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said he was given, explaining to the Capital Gazette the suspension was a matter of "optics."
"It's a perception thing," Gladchuk said. "Apparently it doesn't resonate with all the other government agencies that have been shut down."
Problem with this theory is that the athletic departments of both Navy and Air Force don't need government funding to stage Saturday's game. Navy's athletic department, according to a spokesman for the Midshipmen, has financed itself free of government support almost entirely since 1891.
"We could run our entire athletics program and conduct events as we always do without any government funds," Gladchuk told the Capital Gazette. "In talking to the Air Force athletic director, their football team could execute the trip without government funding."
So if the schools can pay for the game themselves, why did the DOD feel the need to intervene?
A conversation with a spokesman at the DOD provided little clarity. When asked why the schools would be ordered to suspend events despite being able to pay for them free of government funding, Commander Bill Urban told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday the DOD is going through a review to determine if a "gift acceptance" of additional funds to one or more of the service academies is legal. That didn't answer the question, so it was asked again: Why is the DOD telling the academies to stand down if they can pay for the games themselves?
"We're currently reviewing the situation," Urban said. "… Once we figure out what we can do and what we should do, we'll let everyone know what we're going to do."
Thursday, the DOD formally announced that games will be played.
"The teams will be allowed to play because the games are paid for with non-appropriated funds," Urban wrote to Yahoo Sports. "The decision affects only this weekend's games."
So the possibility of cancellations still exist.
When posed with the question why – when 14 previous government shutdowns didn't lead to the cancellation of a single service academy football game – the DOD initially called for a suspension of competition this time, Urban simply said, "I don't know the answer to that question."
By now, you've probably figured out your own answer: politics.
To the majority of Americans, the dire consequences of a government shutdown are unnoticeable. (Yes, the Dow is down, but less than 1 percent since Monday.) Sure, if you're among those furloughed and you're not getting a paycheck, the impact will be immediately measurable. But that's not most people.
Most people went about their day Tuesday, when the government officially "shut down," as if nothing had changed. And Wednesday. And now Thursday and possibly Friday. If this shutdown goes on too long and you don't notice a change in your life – namely something negative – then, well, you might just start wondering what the heck the government is doing on those days when it is working.
This is why the pols in Washington are on the campaign trail, pointing fingers and promising the end of the world if this thing doesn't end soon. They need your support, but to get it they've first got to get your attention. And people pay attention to sports.
No one in the Department of Defense or higher up the food chain is going to admit to using these college kids as pawns in their power play. But they don't have to, because history tells us it never had to come to this – not even the discussion of suspending games. Thirty-six times service academies have had football games scheduled during government shutdowns and 36 times those games have been played.
What's so different now?