MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A Middle Tennessee freshman who finished five years of active service in the Marines this summer is appealing an NCAA rule preventing him from playing football this season because he played in a military-only recreational league.
"This is extremely frustrating. I think it's unfair, highly unfair," said Steven Rhodes of Antioch, Tenn. "I just got out of the Marine Corps, and I wanted to play. For (the NCAA) to say, 'No, you can't play right now,' I just don't understand the logic in that."
After Rhodes finished his active service, he called Middle Tennessee coaches hoping to land a spot as a walk-on. They welcomed the 6-foot-3, 240-pound sergeant, and he has played tight end and defensive end in preseason camp.
But soon Rhodes was told his participation in a military-only recreational football league in 2012 would hinder his immediate eligibility for Division I football, per an NCAA rule.
The rule essentially says athletes who do not enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of collegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition, Murfreesboro's Daily News Journal said.
By NCAA standards, Rhodes' play at the Marine base counted as "organized competition" because there were game officials and team uniforms, and the score was kept.
"Man, it was like intramurals for us," said Rhodes, 24. "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.
Daryl Simpson, Middle Tennessee's assistant athletic director/compliance, said he didn't believe the NCAA ever intended to penalize military service members.
"All this is strictly because of how the bylaw is worded," he said. "In my opinion, there is no intent of anyone to not allow protection to our U.S. service members."
Under current NCAA rules, Rhodes would have to sit out this season and forfeit two years of eligibility because his rec league season spanned two academic years.
Middle Tennessee won a partial appeal to the NCAA last week recouping the two years of eligibility. But Rhodes still is appealing to play this season.
The school hopes to hear from the NCAA within the next month, Middle Tennessee spokesman Mark Owens said Sunday. The Blue Raiders open the season Aug. 29 hosting Western Carolina.