Ex-Marine hoping NCAA reconsiders

Under NCAA rules, student-athletes who fail multiple drug tests administered by their schools can still play college football.

Players who have been convicted of crimes such as DUI, assault and statutory rape will suit up for their respective teams this coming season.

But a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine, who happened to play in a recreational football league during his active enlistment?

He's ineligible to play this coming season.

It's a wrong that the NCAA must right immediately.

Middle Tennessee State walk-on Steven Rhodes, who served five years in the Marines before his active enlistment ended July 1, has spent the past three weeks practicing with the Blue Raiders. The former high school wide receiver has played both tight end and defensive end in preseason camp, and coach Rick Stockstill says the 6-foot-3, 240-pound veteran can help his team somewhere -- if the NCAA lets him play.

The Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Daily News Journal reported the NCAA informed MTSU last week that Rhodes isn't eligible to play this season because he participated in about a dozen games in a military-only football league while he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. The NCAA initially ruled Rhodes would have to forfeit two years of college eligibility because the military league's season spanned two academic years (two games were played in the winter of 2011 and about 10 more during the summer and fall of 2012). MTSU successfully appealed the loss of eligibility, but the NCAA ruled Rhodes must still take a mandatory redshirt season before having four years of eligibility.

Because the military-only football league issued uniforms, used on-field officials and recorded scores and statistics, it is considered an organized league under NCAA rules.

We can debate from now until the end of the upcoming season whether reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel should be able to profit from his signature and Texas A&M's sales of his jersey. We can also debate whether players such as LSU running back Jeremy Hill should be allowed to return to their teams after they've been arrested multiple times.

But this case is a no-brainer, even for the NCAA.

"I can understand the rule, but when you look at it, he's a guy that spent five years of his life defending our country," Stockstill said. "His superiors didn't order but strongly encouraged him to play on the football team to improve troop morale. I think we're doing a disservice to this kid for what he's done for us. He's married and has two kids. He's not even on scholarship. He only wants to follow his dream of playing college football and starting on his degree."

Rhodes never imagined that playing in games against Navy mechanics and air traffic controllers would jeopardize his college eligibility. He said the games were played in front of about 50 people and he never received money or other benefits to participate.

"It was a recreational league," Rhodes said. "Guys were 18 to 40 years old. We played one game on a Tuesday night and then didn't play again for six weeks. It wasn't organized, but there were officials and they kept score. I guess that's why the NCAA said it was organized."

MTSU assistant athletics director for compliance Daryl Simpson said the NCAA actually made the right ruling based on its rulebook.


It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision. I wanted to be the best, so I wanted to be a Marine.

"-- Steven Rhodes

"It's kind of a complicated case," Simpson said. "I know a lot of the public is going to react against the NCAA, but it was the correct ruling based on the rules and the way it's written. I don't think it's anybody's fault. Back in 1996, somebody made a mistake. I don't think it was an intentional error, and I don't think anyone wanted to hose the military personnel. I just think it was omitted by mistake."

In the past, NCAA rules protected members of the military who participated in organized athletics during their enlistment. The NCAA bylaw was first written in 1980 and initially exempted "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." But over the past four decades, the rule has been revised numerous times to address specific sports other than football, and somehow the military exemption was omitted along the way.

"The NCAA has provided an initial review of the case and will continue to work with the university. The process is ongoing and a final decision has not yet been made," NCAA director of public and media relations Stacey Osburn said in a statement.

The case is yet another example of the consequences of having a woefully bloated and outdated NCAA manual. More than anything, though, it's another example of how little weight common sense actually carries within the NCAA. How could the NCAA's staff not read the case specifics and MTSU's appeal and recognize that its current eligibility rules shouldn't apply? How did no one recognize that the military exemption was included in the bylaw and then wasn't?

Rhodes should be the poster child for what's right about college sports. He wasn't recruited during his senior season at Antioch High School in Tennessee. He spent more than a year assembling dashboards at a Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., before joining the Marines on a whim in 2008.

"I just wanted a change and wanted to do something different," Rhodes said. "It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision. I wanted to be the best, so I wanted to be a Marine."

After deciding he wanted to play college football, Rhodes sent an email to Stockstill this spring. It included links to highlights of Rhodes' military league games and him running pass routes on his own.

"They were pretty excited," Rhodes said. "They called me back immediately and told me they wanted to get me out here."

MTSU's coaches wrote a letter to the Marines, asking that Rhodes' enlistment end five weeks early so he could participate in preseason practice. Rhodes arrived at MTSU in July and participated in voluntary passing drills and worked out on his own.

"The past two years of [military football] kind of reignited my dream of going to the NFL," Rhodes said. "I was training as much as I could and doing everything I could to get to the NFL. I figured I had to go through college to get there."

Now, the NCAA is threatening to put Rhodes' dream on hold.

Simpson planned to submit a final appeal to the NCAA on Sunday, in which he would ask college sports' governing body to waive its redshirt season requirement. He hoped to get an answer from the NCAA sometime this week.

"I'd say this if Steven was playing for someone else we had to play: He's a guy that sacrificed five years of his life serving our country," Stockstill said. "He's 24 years old. He only has a few years left to play football, and we're going to take a year away from him?"

Surely, not even the NCAA can make that kind of decision.