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The Academy athlete: Bringing character, integrity beyond playing field

Falcon Ice Hockey head coach Frank Serratore  (right) talks to his team
during a match at the Cadet Ice Arena. Serratore said the competitive
athlete understands the meaning of leadership and the attributes they gain
in competition -- service before self, caring for others and leading front
the front -- help them effectively manage their other responsibilities.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Falcon Ice Hockey head coach Frank Serratore (right) talks to his team during a match at the Cadet Ice Arena. Serratore said the competitive athlete understands the meaning of leadership and the attributes they gain in competition -- service before self, caring for others and leading front the front -- help them effectively manage their other responsibilities. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- When you stroll through the Academy's athletic department, you can't pass by without noticing signs reading, "Integrity first, Service before self and Excellence in all we do."

This shouldn't surprise any staff member or cadet here because, as Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson told the Board of Visitors Sept. 26 - and has repeatedly mentioned to her staff during her 14 month tenure - the Academy's ultimate focus is to engrain a culture consistent with the Air Force core values and ensure every cadet, athletes and non-athletes, live up to this standard.

"It's important to us to be strong everywhere across the Academy, including the athletic department," she said to the BOV. "We welcome tough and fair questions because we need to maintain a Culture of Commitment, Climate and Respect, and hold each other accountable, especially permanent party (Academy staff), to set a good model for cadets."

The Athletic Department's 27 intercollegiate sports, and boxing and cheerleading, train and compete to give the cadets character and leadership opportunities on and off the field, also focusing on Academic and character-driven wins.    

Despite a few off-the-field challenges, Academy athletic director Dr. Hans Mueh said the vast majority of cadet athletes here serve others, set records, tackle leadership positions and receive the continued support of the local community.

"Athletics is the front porch of the Academy," Mueh said. "Cadet athletes are embarrassed to be identified as they are right now by the margins. The American public has a right to hold us to a much higher standard, including our athletic program. The cadets are embarrassed, want to do something to change that, and they are."

During the last six years, four Academy cadet athletes won NCAA Division I student athlete sportsmanship awards. Every year, one male and female from each division who demonstrates a high level of sportsmanship and ethics is selected.

Last year, William Kent, then a senior Falcon track and field hammer thrower, received the award after approaching an official during a competition to explain that his throw distance was lower than recorded. He wanted to make sure his record was accurate and fair and officials agreed to lower his mark. Kent's distance was still far enough to win the competition, but his honor and integrity came first.

"These are selfless acts," Mueh said. "They're spontaneous acts on the part of cadets who garnered these sportsmanship awards. I think that's very special."

In April, for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, cadets produced a "Cadet Athletes Against Sexual Violence" video for YouTube, showing Academy athletes pledging to take action to stop sexual violence. Coaches and staff here participated in the Mentor in Violence Prevention program that month, where most valuable player facilitators allowed cadet athletes to share personal stories and establish a continuing dialogue on issues such as rape, battery and sexual harassment.

One hundred-twenty athletes, including Falcon football players, attended this seminar, Mueh said.

"Forty athletes spent the entire day with facilitators," he said. "They now are mentors and trainers for the rest of the athletes here. I think the climate now among cadet athletes is that they're serious about taking steps to say, 'Enough. This is about respect and dignity. Let's sign this pledge and make sure this doesn't happen again.'"

The athletic department established a Respect and Character Enrichment committee that meets weekly to ensure teams and athletes continue to live up to the Academy's culture and communicate with their supervisors and coaches.

Then there's the Football Leadership Council, comprised of 24 Falcon football players who took ownership of their team's climate. They take part in regular community service projects and meet regularly with the Academy's staff.

The Academy also has an all-volunteer academic committee and mentoring program monitoring the academic progress of cadet athletes.

"Our jobs as mentors here is to create ways to make negatives into positives, molding our cadets into team players and disciplined officers, to hold people accountable and make them stronger without breaking their spirit," said Falcon Ice Hockey head coach Frank Serratore. "We must develop leaders who can think under pressure and make winning decisions."

Collectively, Serratore's team maintains a 3.0 GPA. 

"The competitive athlete here understands teamwork and what it means to be part of team," Serratore said. "The competitive athlete also understands the meaning of true leadership. In my opinion, true leadership has little or nothing to do with rank. It has to do with earning the respect of others through one's actions, putting the team first, selflessly caring for others, leading from the front and in essence - leading by example."

Cadet athletes are cadets first, and before they step on the field they must take care of their academic and military responsibilities, Falcon Football head coach Troy Calhoun said.

"The daily discipline on the field, in the classroom, and sense of maturity and personal responsibility cadets must have here is continuous," he said. "We want cadets to have an incredible warrior spirit and drive that is in the interest of contributing to a team rather than solely for one's personal interests. That is the kind of character we want to build in our program."

Falcon Men's Basketball head coach Dave Pilipovich said athletics can never become more important than cadets' studies.

"Academics are very important in our mission at the Academy," he said. "If players strive to be the best students they can be, then we believe our cadets will strive to be the best athletes they can be. The hard work they put into academics carries over to their hard work on the court."

Last year, Pilipovich benched his leading scorer because he wasn't adhering to the team's high standards of behavior.

"It made our team weaker, but our mission is to help our cadet athletes become great officers," he said. "Also, it reinforced what we expect from our cadet athletes and the standards we continue to maintain in our program."

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