Navy questions whether ESPN tried to sink Keenan Reynolds' Heisman candidacy

As a general life rule, you don't want the United States Navy mad at you.

Not only does it have warships that can launch ICBMs at you, but it also has the Naval Academy. And the Naval Academy has respect and prestige and clout. It is considered one of America's great institutions of higher education, producing future military leaders.

Keenan Reynolds is the leading military-academy Heisman contender of the past quarter century. (Getty Images)
Keenan Reynolds is the leading military-academy Heisman contender of the past quarter century. (Getty Images)

If you are perceived as anti-Naval Academy, you might as well be a flag-burning turncoat.

ESPN, of all politically and corporately correct entities, is now fighting the anti-Navy perception.

Here's the deal: Navy's quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, was leading the Nissan Heisman House fan voting for the past three weeks, which collectively will count as one actual vote for the Heisman Trophy. (You can cast your vote here.) Then, after the Midshipmen lost for just the second time this season, at Houston, Reynolds' name disappeared from the handy selection button page.

Previously, he had been one of five button choices. Now, there were five choices but no Reynolds. You could still vote for Reynolds, but it's a laborious process of selecting the write-in option, finding the conference, finding the team and then finding the player. To use a term from the World War II novel, "Catch-22," Reynolds was disappeared.

Navy was not pleased.

The schools' athletic Twitter account, @NavyAthletics, mobilized its fleet, so to speak. It complained that ESPN and Nissan were undercutting the clear favorite of the fans, and that complaint resonated with many people. Some of them rather powerful.

Here is what one Naval Academy grad tweeted Wednesday night:

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Yes, that John McCain, the U.S. Senator from Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Republican presidential nominee, former prisoner of war, etc.

Do you want John McCain mad at you, ESPN?

No, you do not.

With McCain and others leading the write-in campaign, Reynolds' chances of winning the Nissan fan vote are alive and well. As of Thursday afternoon he was still leading the balloting, with 39 percent of the vote. That's down from a high of 44 percent when it was easy to vote for Reynolds, but up from a low of 36 percent after his name was removed from the front of the page. After this column was published Thursday evening, ESPN also announced it was reinstating Reynold's button.

Reynolds has an an FBS record-tying 83 rushing touchdowns. (Getty Images)
Reynolds has an an FBS record-tying 83 rushing touchdowns. (Getty Images)

For now, the republic is not in jeopardy, and warships are not steaming toward the Connecticut coast to train their weapons upon Bristol.

In point of fact, ESPN and Nissan did not collude to sabotage Keenan Reynolds' Heisman campaign. This is nothing nefarious, not a discriminatory act against a program from outside the Power 5 conferences, and not un-American skullduggery. Like every TV network, ESPN has regularly stated – perhaps even overstated – its pro-military fervor. (Name the major American corporation that is anti-military.)

Anyway, there's no need as of this writing to go Joseph McCarthy on ESPN. Here's the explanation from the network's college football spokeswoman, Keri Potts, in an email to Yahoo Sports: "Keenan Reynolds has not been removed and still leads the Nissan Fan Vote leaderboard. However, as noted above the fan voting site, the Heisman candidates featured on the page are fed through ESPN's Heisman Watch – a weekly editorial poll of several college football experts. As the poll adjusts throughout the season, it is reflected in the candidates represented on the voting page."

So basically, this was an auto-switch generated by ESPN's polling of its own people. The explanation for how it happened is understandable. The explanation for why it happened is less understandable. The basic fan-vote setup is not ideal.

"How do you call it a fan vote and have your eight so-called experts drive the nominees?" asked Scott Strasemeier, Navy associate athletic director for sports information. "How do you take down the guy who's running away with the fan vote?"

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Not just the guy running away with the fan vote – the guy from the Naval Academy. The unfortunate problem for ESPN is that the auto-switch hurt the leading military-academy Heisman contender of the past quarter century, at least. The last service-academy player to finish in the top 10 in the voting was Air Force quarterback Beau Morgan in 1996, and he was 10th.

Reynolds figures to finish higher than that – perhaps as high as sixth, where AFA QB Dee Dowis was in 1989. None has finished in the top five since Navy's Roger Staubach won the thing in 1963. And Roger The Dodger says he's voting for Keenan Reynolds this year.

Do you want Roger Staubach mad at you, ESPN?

No, you do not.

Reynolds has rushed for more than 4,000 yards during his career. (Getty Images)
Reynolds has rushed for more than 4,000 yards during his career. (Getty Images)

But downgrading Reynolds as a Heisman contender after the Houston game isn't just bad optics, to use a corporate buzzword. It's questionable football analysis.

Dropping Reynolds post-Houston takes into account only the score of the game, not the quarterback's performance. This is a guy who operates the triple option and has made his sterling reputation running the ball: an FBS record-tying 83 rushing touchdowns and more than 4,000 rushing yards in his Navy career. Yet when the Cougars shut down the Navy option attack, Reynolds responded with a shocking 312 passing yards, the greatest game of his career throwing the ball. He also ran for 84 yards, and accounted for one touchdown on the ground and one through the air.

"If Keenan was a Heisman Trophy candidate before that game," Strasemeier said, "he certainly should still be a Heisman Trophy candidate after it."

Reynolds still has a game to go, but it's too late to add it to his Heisman résumé. The annual Army-Navy game is Dec. 12 in Philadelphia. That also happens to be the day the Heisman is awarded in New York City.

The Army-Navy game kicks off at 3 p.m. ET. The Heisman ceremony starts at 8. Can Reynolds do both?

"We have a plan in place to get him there on time," Strasemeier said.

Reynolds must be an invited finalist first and those are chosen by a percentage of the vote, which is due Monday. He is close to having one first-place vote out of about 900 wrapped up, thanks to ESPN and Nissan – and, well, also in spite of ESPN and Nissan.

They may have temporarily taken away Keenan Reynolds' button. But they haven't taken away his fan following. No need for the Navy to mobilize on Bristol yet.

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