Steven Rhodes, a 24-year-old freshman at MTSU, was initially informed by the NCAA he wouldn't be allowed to play college football because he played in a recreational football league while a Marine.
MTSU won a partial appeal to the NCAA last week, recouping two years of eligibility for Rhodes with his recreational league spanning two academic years.
A current bylaw in NCAA regulations stipulates that any athlete who does not enroll in college immediately after high school loses a year of eligibility for every year he or she participates in an "organized" sports activity. Prior to a 2011 regulation change, members of the armed forces were completely exempt from that specific guideline, but an alteration made at that time only exempts military personnel who participate in skiing and ice hockey.
When the Rhodes case first came to the attention of the news media last week with a report in the (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal, the 6-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound former Marine sergeant said the recreational league was loosely "organized," at best.
"It was like intramurals for us," Rhodes told the local newspaper. "There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old…we once went six weeks between games."
An Aug. 19 letter to NCAA president Tom Emmert in support of Rhodes by U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN), whose district includes Murfreesboro read, in part:
"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. 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."
That same afternoon, an official release from Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, announced Rhodes would be eligible to play immediately and that the organization would review its current policy regarding the college sports eligibility of military veterans.
While overdue, the announcement was unanimously welcomed by military supporters—and sportswriters—as well as MTSU president, Dr. Sidney McPhee.
"This is exciting news for Steven and Middle Tennessee State University," Dr. McPhee said in a prepared statement. "We express our gratitude to the NCAA for reviewing this situation and granting Steven the ability to play this fall. We are hopeful that the NCAA will look at the bylaws regarding all individuals who serve in the military before becoming a student-athlete."
The Blue Raiders open their season Aug. 29, hosting Western Carolina University.