The NCAA has reversed its initial ruling declaring former Marine and current freshman Steve Rhodes ineligible to play football for Middle Tennessee State University this season because of his participation in a military recreational football league during his five years of military service. Rhodes has been cleared to resume practice and prepare for his team’s opening game of the 2013 season.

Rhodes, who finished his active duty in the Marines this summer, appealed the NCAA’s decision interpreting an NCAA bylaw. NCAA Bylaw 14.2.3.2.1 states that students who do not enroll in college within one year of their high school graduation forfeit one year of eligibility for every academic year that they participate in “organized competition.” According to the NCAA’s initial ruling, playing while serving as a Marine counted as “organized competition” because the games Rhodes participated in had officials, the team’s wore uniforms and the score was kept for each contest. This activity violated the bylaw, the NCAA concluded.

In direct contrast to the NCAA’s findings, Rhodes described the games he participated in as “extremely disorganized.” He added, “The games were like intramurals for us. There were guys from 18 to 40 something years old. We once went six weeks between games.”

The original NCAA rule on athletic competition during military service took shape in 1980, when participation in organized competition while engaged in the armed services, on official church missions or with a recognized foreign aid service of the U.S. government was deemed exempt and did not affect or limit eligibility. The 1986 revision of the rule further clarified student-athlete’s rights to participate in recreational sports during military service. However, as a result of several additional NCAA rule revisions, the clause allowing competition to be exempt during military service was eliminated and is not part of the current bylaws. Technically, Rhodes should have had to forfeit two years of eligibility because he participated in games spanning the equivalent of two academic years. Rhodes and Middle Tennessee State University successfully appealed the loss of eligible years, but the NCAA initially declared that Rhodes would have to sit out the equivalent of a redshirt season in 2013.

The NCAA’s initial ruling restricting Rhodes’ participation changed with an official release from Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs: "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, the 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."