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Legislative Oversight Leads to Eligibility Issues for MTSU’s Rhodes

Right now, the narrative is that Steven Rhodes, a former Marine who is a member of Middle Tennessee State’s football team, is being screwed by the NCAA. Rhodes participated in a military rec league, which as everyone correctly reports, triggered the NCAA’s delayed enrollment rule, Bylaw But why he triggered that bylaw is the interesting part.

Prior to 2011, there was an exception to the old delayed enrollment rule (competition after a prospect’s 21st birthday) for organized competition while serving in the United States armed forces. But in 2011, Proposal 2009–22 finally became effective. 2009–22 was a major rewrite of the rules in two areas: competition with professionals prior to enrollment and the delayed enrollment rules. The former was deregulated, while the latter was made stricter.

Forgotten in the change was the US armed forces exception. It is still there, right where it always has been. It just applies to only two sports now:

In men’s ice hockey and skiing, any participation as an individual or a team representative in organized sports competition by a student during each 12-month period after the student’s 21st birthday and prior to initial full-time enrollment in a collegiate institution shall count as one year of varsity competition in that sport. Participation in organized competition during time spent in the U.S. armed services shall be excepted. (emphasis added)

So if Rhodes wanted to play ice hockey or collegiate skiing, he would be fine. If he had enrolled to play football before fall 2011, he would be fine. The question now is whether he will be fine anyway, via relief from the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement or if a waiver is possible.

Without access to waiver and reinstatement precedent, it is hard to say. But the history of Proposal 2009–22 presents a problem. The best case scenario for Rhodes is that the lack of a military exception in 2009–22 was a mistake. But if it was a mistake, it was a big one. The Division II rule, which is similar to 2009–22, includes a military exception. So do the proposals from when a similar delayed enrollment rule was defeated in 1999.

When something is not in a proposal that is in every other existing version of the rule and similar proposals in the past, at some point the people tasked with interpreting the rule have to assume the omission was intentional. That the tougher delayed enrollment rule was designed to include participation in US military rec leagues. That would argue against a waiver.

On the flip side, having a long-standing exception to fall back on means this situation can be fixed without opening the flood gates for relief in every delayed enrollment case. The Subcommittee for Legislative Relief can give a blanket waiver for this year, and request that the legislation be changed prior to fall 2014. If the Legislative Council and/or Board of Directors refuses to fix the issue, then no more waivers will be granted since it will be clear that removing the exception was intentional.

This is why a quick PR response from the NCAA national office would be foolish if it was anything beyond a status update. There is no guarantee this is even a strong case for relief, much less a home run. The only way the NCAA could possibly make this situation worse is for the national office to call Rhodes collateral damage from a tangentially related rule only for the membership to confirm that he was squarely in their crosshairs when they made the rule.

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