The response to Sunday's news that NCAA rules could force Middle Tennessee State walk-on and U.S. Marine Steven Rhodes to sit out a mandatory redshirt year due to his participation in military intramurals has been swift and -- unsurprisingly -- not kind to the NCAA. And now the story has attracted the attention of Rhodes' Congressman.
Scott DesJarlais (R) of Tennessee's 4th Congressional District wrote a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert Monday, asking him and his organization to "take another look into Mr. Rhodes' situation" and grant the 24-year-old his immediate eligibility.
"Instead of celebrating and encouraging [Rhodes'] endeavor, the NCAA is using an obtuse interpretation of its own bylaws on an issue in which I believe this outcome was never intended to address," DesJarlais writes. "And while the NCAA does not necessarily owe Mr. Rhodes the opportunity to play collegiate football, his compelling story should be an inspiration and an admirable example for all of its student athletes."
Rhodes' situation was exhaustively detailed in Sunday's story from the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, which documents how Rhodes' appearance in games pitting "air traffic controllers against the mechanics" (to quote his wife, Adrienne) ran him afoul of an obscure NCAA bylaw. An initial appeal on his behalf filed by MTSU succeeded in gaining him another year of eligibility, but did not lift the mandatory redshirt for 2012.
MTSU is preparing to file a second appeal, one that NCAA bylaws expert John Infante warns is not a slam dunk, but which MTSU president Sidney McPhee told Yahoo Sports Monday he expects to succeed -- perhaps in part because of the immense public pressure mounting against the NCAA, pressure neatly exemplified by Congressman DesJarlais's letter.
For the NCAA's part, spokesperson Stacey Osburn told Yahoo that the organization "will continue to work with the university. The process is ongoing and a final decision has not yet been made."
The complete text of the DesJarlais letter, as provided by his office to CBSSports.com:
Dear President Emmert,
I write regarding the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) decision to not allow a United States Marine, a hero by any measure, eligibility to play football for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in this upcoming season.
The NCAA, founded more than one hundred years ago, maintains in its mission statement that its goal "is to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes." I truly believe that the NCAA has an opportunity to uphold that mission in resolving the current issue involving Mr. Steven Rhodes.
As you well know, Rhodes is a young man who felt compelled to serve his country and did so in active duty for five years. He is currently enrolled as a fulltime student at MTSU and has walked on the football team in hopes to participate this fall.
Unfortunately, due to an NCAA interpretation of bylaw 126.96.36.199.1, Rhodes has been deemed ineligible. While I think we would both agree that this particular rule and clause therein was never intended to punish or deter our nation's military personnel from having the opportunity to participate in NCAA sanctioned athletic events, that is exactly the scenario that is currently unfolding.
I respectfully ask that you take another look into Mr. Rhodes' situation and make a determination that military "recreational leagues" are not considered organized competitions that should preclude Mr. Rhodes from having immediate eligibility. After all, Mr. Rhodes has given the sacrifice of service to his country, displaying not only leadership but all of the qualities that the NCAA wants its student-athletes to emulate and represent. Mr. Rhodes is seeking to be a "walk-on" athlete, paying for his own education and working to enhance his life both academically as well as athletically.
Instead of celebrating and encouraging this endeavor, the NCAA is using an obtuse interpretation of its own bylaws on an issue in which I believe this outcome was never intended to address. And while the NCAA does not necessarily owe Mr. Rhodes the opportunity to play collegiate football, his compelling story should be an inspiration and an admirable example for all of its student athletes.
In closing, you may remember having said that the NCAA "was founded on the notion of integrating athletics into the educational experience, and we have to make sure we deliver on that 100-year-old promise . We have to remind ourselves that this is about the young men and women we asked to come to our schools for a great educational experience.
We have to collectively deliver on those promises." President Emmert, both you and the NCAA have an opportunity to not only live up to this promise, but to also show student-athletes around the United States and others that Mr. Rhodes is someone we should look up to.
I greatly appreciate your expedited consideration into this matter and please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.
Scott DesJarlais, M.D.
Member of Congress