The NCAA is working with Middle Tennessee to come up with a decision on the eligibility of a freshman attempting to play college football after serving five years in the Marines.
Steven Rhodes played in a recreational league during his military service that could make him ineligible. An NCAA rule states that student-athletes who don’t enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.
"The NCAA has provided an initial review of the case and will continue to work with the university," NCAA spokeswoman Stacy Osburn said. "The process is ongoing and a final decision has not yet been made."
Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro said he expects to hear something from the NCAA "in the next day or two." Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee added that he would be "disappointed" if he didn’t hear anything in the next day or so.
"This is such a no-brainer, frankly," McPhee said. "Even though the rule is very clear on this, I think there is a sense that a wrong needs to be made right in this particular case."
Massaro said the attention surrounding Rhodes’ case has made him more optimistic about the situation.
"I think public pressure obviously has been pretty enormous on the NCAA on this one," Massaro said. "I think they honestly are looking for a way to kind of find a common-sense solution to this and still maintain what the original integrity of the rule was. I think there are some ways for them to do this. I’m hoping we can put some closure to this."
Rhodes has at least one congressman in his corner.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican whose district includes Murfreesboro, Monday sent a letter to NCAA President Tom Emmert in support of Rhodes.
"Mr. Rhodes has given the sacrifice of service to his country, displaying not only leadership but all of the qualities that the NCAA wants its student-athletes to emulate and represent," DesJarlais wrote. "Mr. Rhodes is seeking to be a ‘walk-on’ athlete, paying for his own education and working to enhance his life both academically as well as athletically. Instead of celebrating and encouraging this endeavor, the NCAA is using an obtuse interpretation of its own bylaws on an issue in which I believe this outcome was never intended to address. And while the NCAA does not necessarily owe Mr. Rhodes the opportunity to play collegiate football, his compelling story should be an inspiration and an admirable example for all of its student-athletes."
Rhodes’ case was first reported by The (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal.
By NCAA standards, Rhodes’ play at the Marine base counted as "organized competition" because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.
But the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marine sergeant said the recreational league was nothing close to organized.
"Man, it was like intramurals for us," the 24-year-old told The Daily News Journal. "There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old. The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games."
The rule first took shape in 1980, when "participation in organized competition during times spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government" were exempt from limiting eligibility.
But through several revisions and branches of the rule, the clause allowing competition during military service was lost and not carried over into the current bylaws.
"We believe it just got kind of edited out without any real reason that we could find," Massaro said. "That’s what we basically presented to (the NCAA). I think they’re taking a look at that."
Daryl Simpson, MTSU’s assistant athletic director/compliance, said he doesn’t believe the NCAA ever intended to penalize military service members.
"All this is strictly because of how the bylaw is worded," Simpson told The Daily News Journal. "In my opinion, there is no intent of anyone to not allow protection to our U.S. service members."
Middle Tennessee won a partial appeal to the NCAA last week recouping two years of eligibility for Rhodes with his recreational league spanning two academic years. But Rhodes still is appealing to play this season while practicing both at tight end and defensive end.
"In my view, I don’t see how any committee or individual after reviewing this in detail can conclude this student-athlete doesn’t deserve to play now and participate in intercollegiate sports," McPhee said.
The Blue Raiders open the season Aug. 29 by hosting Western Carolina.