Fresh off a five-year stint in the Marine Corps, Steven Rhodes wanted to return to his native Tennessee to enroll in college and maybe play football, if any coach would give him a chance. Rhodes, 24, called coaches at Middle Tennessee State University and asked if he could join the football team as a walk-on, and to make his case, he sent them videos of himself playing in an intramural league on his Marine base in San Diego.
Impressed by the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Rhodes, MTSU let Rhodes join the team as a walk-on, and he spent fall practice working out at tight end and defensive end. Coaches expected Rhodes to make an impact for the Blue Raiders on special teams during his freshman season, but thanks to an NCAA rule and those videos of his intramural league, Rhodes may not be in uniform for Middle Tennessee this season, the (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal reported this weekend:
The official rule keeping Rhodes from playing a game this season is NCAA bylaw 22.214.171.124.1. Steeped in layers of legal jargon, the rule essentially says that student-athletes that do not enroll in college within a year of their high school graduation will be charged one year of intercollegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.
By NCAA standards, Rhodes’ recreational league games at the Marine base counted as “organized competition” because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.
Middle Tennessee is appealing Rhodes’ case to the NCAA, asking it to grant him immediate eligibility instead of forcing him to sit out a full year. The recreational league he played in while he was a Marine was hardly “organized competition,” Rhodes told the Daily News Journal. “Man, it was like intramurals for us,” he said. “There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old,” Rhodes said. “The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games.”
That the rule even applies to Rhodes seems to be a mistake. The original rule, according to ESPN, exempted athletes who participated in competition while serving in the military, but that clause was lost during repeated revisions of the rule over the last two decades.
Middle Tennessee opens its season on August 29, but it doesn’t expect to receive the NCAA’s final decision until September. It shouldn’t take that long. The NCAA has a chance to get this one right: allowing Rhodes to play won’t threaten its amateurism ideals or subvert the NCAA’s rules and processes. There’s no question of whether Rhodes signed autographs for money or whether he should be on the field after multiple arrests or positive drug tests, as there are in other high-profile instances this off-season. It’s simply a former Marine who played a little football on base — an activity the Marines recommend to reduce stress, in fact — and now wants a chance to play the game while he completes his education.