The NCAA had some good news Monday for former Marine Steven Rhodes — it has decided to bend a bylaw that barred Rhodes from playing college football, to allow him to participate in his freshman season at Middle Tennessee State this year.
“As a part of its continued review of Steven Rhodes’ eligibility, NCAA staff determined he may play immediately. Additionally, he will maintain all four years of his eligibility. Throughout this process, NCAA staff worked closely with Middle Tennessee State University, and we appreciate the school’s partnership,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, in a statement.
Lennon also said that the NCAA’s members would continue to examine the organized competition rules, especially as they impact those returning from military service.
According to current NCAA bylaws, Rhodes would not have been eligible to play Division I football for a few more years because of the football games he played for fun during his five years as an active-duty Marine. NCAA bylaw 220.127.116.11.1 essentially states that if a player does not enroll in a university within a year of graduating from high school, he or she will be charged a year of eligibility for every academic year of participation in “organized competition.”
Rhodes is entering his first year at Middle Tennessee State University. During the summer, he expressed interest in joining the Blue Devils football team as a walk-on player. He had played in high school, but that was nearly seven years ago, and to Rhodes, the recreational games he played during his years of service hardly counted as experience.
“It was basically, just like an intramural league,” Rhodes told CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield on Monday. “Whenever we had time, we would play. If we didn’t, if our workload didn’t commit, we couldn’t play. It was just something to take out a little stress, and build camaraderie between troops and give us some physical fitness.”
So when he started attending preseason camps, both Rhodes and the coaching staff were hopeful.
“There’s no doubt he can help us on special teams, and then we can find a place for him,” MTSU Coach Rick Stockstill told USA Today. “He is learning defensive end, and he looks like he can come off the edge. We could always move him back to offense and develop him there, maybe do that next spring.”
In Rhodes’ case, NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168.1 would have cost him two years of eligibility for his two years of playing during his time in the Marines, and it would have forced him to red shirt this season.
The rule itself raises a lot of questions: What exactly is “organized competition?” According to Rhodes’ description of the games on base, he thought they were anything but organized.
“There were good, talented players here and there, but as a whole, it wasn’t on a competitive level,” Rhodes told CNN.
An earlier version of the bylaw contained provisions for prospective student-athletes enrolled in the military, but several revisions effectively edited that clause out.
Even before Monday’s decision, Rhodes was hopeful that, with the help of the MTSU staff and the understanding of the NCAA, he would be on the field soon.
“MTSU is behind me 100 percent and they’re working day and night trying to get this solved,” Rhodes told CNN. “And I believe it will work out in my favor.”
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