NCAA standing in way of former Marine’s football dream

Most of you know by now that I’m a University of Tennessee fan, but it is my “almost mater.” After spending too many of my 3 1/2 years not in the classroom, I entered the military and finished my degree at Middle Tennessee State.

So I love my Volunteers and my Blue Raiders, but first and foremost, I am an American. And if you happen to be one as well as a college football fan, this story will make you mad enough to stomp bunnies.

Former Marine Steven Rhodes was hoping to be a walk-on football player at MTSU this season, but the rocket surgeons at the NCAA will make him wait because he played in a military football league during his enlistment. That is, when he wasn’t dodging bullets in Afghanistan.

Rhodes completed five years of active duty this summer, but was ruled ineligible because he competed in a recreational football league for military personnel in 2012. According to NCAA regulations, the rec league games are considered organized competition.

“This is extremely frustrating. I think it’s unfair, highly unfair,” Rhodes told the Daily News Journal. “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.”

Rhodes told the DNJ that the military league was not highly competitive and not even well organized. Having attended a few of the games during my Air Force days, I can confirm his story. It was one step up from the Backyard Football League I played in as a kid.

“Man, it was like intramurals for us,” Rhodes told the DNJ. “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 NCAA bylaw reads that “student-athletes that do not enroll in college within a year of their high school graduation will be charged one year of intercollegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.”

After the NCAA initially ruled that Rhodes would have to sit out two years, MTSU appealed and the waiting period was reduced to one year. The school is seeking an NCAA rule change that would allow Rhodes to still play this season, saying it is simply an oversight of a regulation that was not intended to penalize military members.

But the NCAA continues to sit and spin over this one, cutting it close to the season opener so that fairness may not play a factor in their decision. Of course, that’s something the NCAA has become infamous for – enacting and enforcing unfair rules, as well as collecting boat loads of money on the backs of student athletes.

It’s one thing that our government is screwing its veterans out of their due benefits. There’s a backlog at the VA a mile long of thousands of delayed medical claims that will take at least 18 months to sort through. That’s an injustice for sure.

But the NCAA has taken things a step farther. Instead of denying benefits, the NCAA is actually punishing Rhodes and other military members for serving their country. That’s more than unfair; it’s downright un-American.

So no matter what color jersey you suit up in on Saturday, remember we’re all red, white and blue on the inside. It’s a point the NCAA has overlooked in its effort to be color-blind, except for a shade of green that is closer to money than military fatigues.

Let’s hope the government steps in between now and the season opener in the next two weeks and overturns this injustice. Anyone who volunteers to serve on the battlefield should have an open door to play on our football fields.

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