Litke: NCAA tone deaf as always

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Tone-deafness is nothing new at the NCAA.

The guys in charge haven’t been listening to anyone except each other for years.

That’s why they prattle on endlessly about “student-athletes.” And why nothing approaching real reform ever gets done. It’s also why so many of the few things they actually get off their duffs and do seem so arbitrary. And especially why they still come down hard on kids who get free meals and go easy on the athletic factories that make a fortune off all that free (student-athlete) labor.

Because that’s the way the NCAA has always rolled.

Yet even with that checkered past, this latest bit of tomfoolery marks an embarrassing new low.

It began when a 24-year-old named Steven Rhodes finished a five-year stint in the Marines this summer, then decided to go back to school and find out if he could still play some football. So he wrote to the coaches at Middle Tennessee State and asked to walk onto the team.

On the plus side, Rhodes stood 6-foot-3, weighed 240 and was versatile enough to work out at both tight end and defensive end; and as a former sergeant, the MTSU coaches knew he was bound to set a good example in the locker room. The one drawback was that Rhodes hadn’t played any football since his senior season at Antioch (Tenn.) High in 2006, unless you count the dozen or so games he played in a rec league on a Marine base last year.

Which, naturally, the NCAA did.

Some eagle-eyed investigator noticed that Rhodes was in violation of a rule stipulating that student-athletes (there’s that word again) who don’t enroll in college within a year of graduating high school lose one year of college eligibility for every academic year they participate in “organized competition.”

According to the NCAA, those rec league games counted because both teams and the officials wore uniforms and somebody kept score. And because the dozen games were spread over two academic years, Rhodes was ordered to sit out this season and forfeit two years of eligibility total. Sounds fair to me.

“Man, it was like intramurals for us,” Rhodes told The (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal, which first reported the story. “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.”

As one writer at The Big Lead cracked wise: “Just like the BCS National Championship Game. You can see why the NCAA thinks this is similar to collegiate football.”

In any case, the school appealed, an uproar ensued and on Monday the NCAA reversed course, deciding Rhodes was entitled to four years of eligibility and could play right away.

“We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college,” NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon said — likely just moments after he finished picking crow’s feathers out of his teeth,

Lennon also promised that, “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.”

In case you missed it, the NCAA announced its latest set of sweeping rule changes less than three weeks ago. Apparently there were so many other stupid rules to review and/or get rid of, that this one — dating to 1980 — slipped through the net. It’s a small mistake, granted, except it’s also part of a larger pattern. The NCAA has continued making money, but it hasn’t gotten much else right since Mark Emmert took over as president.

The organization compromised its integrity by playing fast and loose with its own rules while investigating Miami’s football program. It just bowed out of a licensing deal with Electronic Arts for a popular college football video game, hoping to limit its exposure in a lawsuit brought by former college athletes that could result in billions of dollars in damages, not to mention a first-ever payday for current Division I football and basketball players.

Member schools, meanwhile, are likely to extend their own separate licensing deals with EA. It’s an arrangement that, just like the BCS, enables those same schools to go around the NCAA and divvy up what used to be its share among themselves. If those same power brokers ever figure out how to do the same with the basketball tournament, and a few are already working on a scheme to do just that, poof! — there goes the NCAA’s operating budget.

There was a time when the NCAA used to make rulings in cases like Rhodes’ — and others just as silly — and made them stick. But even that bit of petty authority no longer goes unchallenged. Small wonder the NCAA looks less scary and more irrelevant with each passing day.

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