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 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.”


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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.