We should know better than to look toward college sports looking for logical solutions to problems, for cooler heads to prevail or for grown-ups to actually look out for the welfare of the so-called student-athletes as much as they like to pretend they do.
But what we should never expect — and shouldn’t tolerate — are decisions that harm college kids out of pure spite. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now in the Colonial Athletic Association as one of the league’s founding members, James Madison, prepares to exit the conference.
On Wednesday night, word began to spread of a memo that athletics director Jeff Bourne and president Jonathan Alger sent to athletes at the school warning them that James Madison would be barred from conference championships if they accept an invitation to another conference.
Currently, James Madison is going through all the formal processes required by the state of Virginia in order to formally accept an invitation to the Sun Belt, a move that is necessary for the football program to move from the FCS to the FBS level. When that happens, CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio told me in a phone conversation Thursday, James Madison will indeed be ineligible for conference team championships while it remains in the league.
“It’s a policy that we have as a conference, and it was a decision made by the board of directors to adhere to the policy and the bylaws of the conference and enforce those going forward,” D’Antonio said. “There’s precedent for it. This happened when other schools have left, and all our institutions are aware that this is a bylaw that exists.”
This precedent primarily goes back to 2012 when VCU tried to capitalize on its Final Four bid by moving to the Atlantic 10, which is considered a stronger league. The following year, the CAA announced that it would enforce the bylaw on Old Dominion and Georgia State, who were both moving up to the FBS. In late March of 2013, George Mason also announced a move to the A-10, making their spring sports teams ineligible.
Those departures undoubtedly made the CAA weaker in basketball. When James Madison moves up to the Sun Belt, the CAA will lose a flagship football program that won a national title in 2016 and has finished in the top-10 for five straight seasons.
But conference realignment is going to do what it does. When opportunities present themselves for more money and a bigger platform, universities are going to take them.
Making teams ineligible for the postseason as a punishment hasn’t deterred anyone from leaving the CAA, so what’s the point of the rule other than punishing a bunch of college kids who have nothing to do with a university-level decision?
What is the CAA accomplishing by telling a swimmer or lacrosse player that they can’t play for a conference championship this year because their school wants to play football at a higher level?
“It is hard being a college student right now, with COVID and isolation and all the challenges they have to endure,” men’s basketball coach Mark Byington told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “For them to bring on more anxiety, more stress, more problems, it just seems tone deaf.”
It’s not just tone-deaf, it’s plain wrong. And that’s where D’Antonio had trouble explaining the point of all this besides just straight-up pettiness and retribution.
“Our intent certainly is not to take punitive action against any individual student-athletes,” he said. “But it is important that we adhere to what the bylaws of the conference say, and that’s what the board of directors decided to do as we go forward. This isn’t something that was just created yesterday. This has been a rule that existed within the conference for quite some time and has been enforced in the past when other institutions have chosen to leave.”
But as we’ve seen on plenty of occasions in college sports over the past year, none of these supposed rules were written on stone tablets. The presidents of the remaining CAA institutions have a choice not to be vindictive jerks. Instead, they’re embarrassing themselves and making their conference look like a low-class outfit that no school should ever want to be part of.
There’s no way around the reality that realignment stinks. When schools see themselves getting left behind, it’s understandable that feelings are raw.
Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC has been a brutal ordeal personally for Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who understandably feels betrayed by the move. The AAC’s aspirations of becoming a power conference got torpedoed when Cincinnati, UCF and Houston were invited to the Big 12 (and the AAC, in response, moved this year’s track and field and swimming championships out of Houston and the softball tournament out of UCF in response). Conference USA is pretty much on life support right now after getting raided by the AAC and the Sun Belt.
But when the adults make those big decisions, you can’t just give lip service to the notion that you’re about supporting the welfare of student-athletes. You have to live it and breathe it, even in tough times. Instead, the CAA is lashing out and hitting the wrong targets.
“I have a great respect for both Jeff Bourne and John Alger,” D’Antonio said of James Madison’s athletics director and president. “We have a close working relationship so I know they have concerns about the decision that was made by the conference but they’re both professionals and understand our board of directors had a decision to make in the best interest of our conference going forward.”
But if banning unpaid amateur athletes from conference championships over losing a member is really in the best interest of your conference, then your conference is so ethically adrift that it’s forgotten why it exists in the first place.