Rick Stockstill defends Marine fighting with NCAA over eligibility

Posted by: Chris Vannini on Monday August 19, 2013

The NCAA’s public support has been wavering for a long time, and the most recent issue — a former Marine being forced to redshirt at Middle Tennessee State — is another bad look.

Steven Rhodes finished five years of active service in the Marine Corps this summer and called Middle Tennessee State in hopes of walking on. A local kid with good size, the coaches brought him on. He has been playing tight end and defensive end.

But the NCAA has stepped in. A rule says that student-athletes who don’t enroll in college within a year of high school graduation will be charged a year of eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition. For Rhodes, this included the recreation games he played while in the Marines in 2012. The story was brought to light by the Murfreesboro (TN) Daily News Journal.

“I understand the rule that the NCAA has,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said on The Tim Brando Show on Monday. “My take on it is, if he’d have been playing in the Marines for money, if they were paying him to play or if they were playing on TV and it were championship games and that sort of thing, highly organized, I could understand it.

But in this situation where it was not demanded, but almost demanded from his superiors that they all participate for team camaraderie building and stress relief from his job, the way he described it was almost recreational. It was his aviation unit playing the mechanic unit. He’d go sometimes five or six weeks not playing a game. He was charged initially two years (by the NCAA) because he played a total of 12 games over a two-year (academic) period. It wasn’t like they were playing 12 games a year or a game every week. This was 12 intramural, recreation-type games over a two-year period.”

Because there were officials, uniforms and score was kept, Rhodes’ games counted toward his eligibility.

Rhodes is in his mid-20s, is married, has two kids, just returned after serving his country and hasn’t truly played competitive football in at least five years. Surely, the NCAA can use some common sense here. According to a statement released Sunday night, the NCAA is still working with the school and says a final decision hasn’t been made. 

The story has blown up nationally since the Daily News Journal report. Pressure is on the organization to finally make a good decision.

“He’s wanting to do everything we talk about in college athletics,” Stockstill said. “We talk all the time about being a good citizen, representing yourself, your university in a positive way and getting an education on top of it. That’s all he wants to do. If he were wanting to play football at another university we’re playing this year, I’d have the same take. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to play.

“It’s not that he’s going to make our football team any better. I don’t know (how much) he can help us. But it’s not about football. It’s not about us becoming a better team because he’s able to play. He hasn’t played football in five or six years. He’s still got a long way to go. I just want to beat the drum because of what he sacrificed for all of us, for you, for me, for our families these last five years serving our country.”

Update: The NCAA has ruled Rhodes eligible immediately, saying in a release, “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. As a part of the ongoing review of NCAA rules, our members will examine the organized competition rules, especially as it impacts those returning from military service. We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college.”

Chris Vannini is in his fifth year with CoachingSearch.com and serves as its managing editor. He has previously written for the Detroit Free Press, The Oakland Press, The State News, MLive.com, 247Sports and SB Nation.  A graduate of Michigan State University, Chris now lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Be sure to follow @coachingsearch and send emails to chris@coachingsearch.com.