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Predictably, Athletes Take the Biggest Hit as CAA Bans Departing JMU from Championships

The conference is invoking a two-decade old bylaw to keep the Dukes from its championships. Once again, the athletes are collateral damage in a larger battle.
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Thursday afternoon, James Madison University athletes received a text notification: mandatory all-sports meeting at 7:30 p.m., in the basketball arena. For many, curiosity turned quickly to dread.

“That had never happened in my time here,” says senior golfer Carly Lyvers. “With the rumors that had been going around, I had a feeling that it probably wasn’t going to be great.”

As teams filed in and sat down together, the JMU coaches watched with what one described as “a pit in your stomach.” They’d had their own meeting earlier in the day and knew what was coming. Soon, athletic director Jeff Bourne stood up and informed the athletes that the rumors Lyvers mentioned were true: The majority of them will not be allowed to compete for a Colonial Athletic Association championship. “It kind of hit everyone in the gut,” Lyvers says.

Realignment met retribution, with the predictable casualties: the athletes themselves. It’s a very 2021 college athletics story, in all the worst ways.

James Madison’s move to the Sun Belt Conference, expected to be finalized Friday, comes at the tail end of a chain-reaction of realignment moves that have shaken college sports yet again. Most of the schools doing the moving are upgrading into enhanced positions, but the greater health of college sports only gets worse. That’s true for many reasons, not the least of which is the pettiness on display in this situation.

JMU’s impending move led to CAA membership invoking a two-decade-old bylaw that banned the Dukes from championship competition. The only teams able to compete are football (where the CAA teams operate outside of league purview) and two whose championships are this week, field hockey and women’s soccer.

Everyone else at the best all-sports school in the conference is out, effective immediately. Men’s soccer, scheduled to host the league tournament next week, is out. Women’s volleyball, tied for the league lead at the moment, is out. Men’s and women’s basketball, which cannot reach the dream of an NCAA Tournament berth without the automatic bids that come with winning the conference tourney, are out. Women’s swimming, shooting for an unprecedented fivepeat as league champ, is out. Three other league championships scheduled to be hosted at the school in Harrisonburg, Va., are out. And so on.

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In a so-called era of athlete empowerment and attention to their well-being, the JMU vs. CAA flap shoves those people back into a powerless box. Pawns in a power struggle. Collateral damage in a clash of egos.

“For the punishment to fall on the athletes is just so hard,” says volleyball coach Lauren Steinbrecher. “After a year of COVID, to have this, it’s indescribable. I keep thinking it’s like a dream and I’m going to wake up.”

The reality is that JMU coaches find themselves repeating the same words they used when the pandemic shut down sports in the spring of 2020. Trying to console, trying to find solutions, trying to readjust goals and rekindle motivations.

Men’s basketball coach Mark Byington went down this road more than 18 months ago when he was the coach at Georgia Southern. The Eagles had advanced to the final four of the Sun Belt tournament when their season was shut down. “These are some of the hardest conversations,” he says. “They don’t prepare you for this.”

At the league office in Richmond, some 130 miles away, they’re not happy about being portrayed as the heartless villains. Commissioner Joe D’Antonio—known as “Joey D,” a guy who is known to visit campuses and practice with the league champions in several sports—cites the league bylaws and points out that James Madison knew full well what it was getting into. “Part of my job is to uphold what our bylaws say,” D’Antonio says. “This is a clause that JMU was aware of.”

This is, in fact a clause JMU had supported—or certainly not publicly opposed—when it had been invoked in the past. East Carolina, Richmond and American were barred from championship participation after announcing they were leaving in 2001. The same thing happened when Old Dominion and George Mason departed in 2013.

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The CAA, which was born in 1985, has just two remaining charter members in William & Mary and James Madison. Now one of them is leaving. A conference that has been in frequent churn this century chose to dig in its heels, with its board of directors “overwhelmingly” rejecting JMU’s request for a waiver of the controversial bylaw, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings.

“We have to respect and uphold the teams that are still in the conference,” says another source involved in the deliberations. “These decisions have consequences. When you live below the Power 5 margin, those automatic bids for conference champions are a huge deal. Why would you want your bid going to a school that isn’t going to be there anymore?”

As conference realignment swept the landscape through the previous three months, from Texas and Oklahoma to Cincinnati and BYU and on down the food chain, it was finally time for the bottom rungs of Division I to make their moves. For James Madison, upgrading to the Sun Belt is a no-brainer from a football standpoint. An FCS power that has won two national championships this century, the Dukes are rising to the FBS level and fitting in with some regional peers. That includes old rival Old Dominion, and also Marshall, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. The fit is there.

But other aspects of the move present problems for the Olympic sports, which had “zero” input on realigning, according to Steinbrecher. James Madison’s successful programs in women’s swimming, field hockey and lacrosse will have to find different conference homes, since those aren’t offered in the Sun Belt. Still, those complications are probably solvable via single-sport membership in other conferences.

What isn’t fixable, at the moment, is the plight of so many teams this academic year.

The CAA has extended the option for athletes from James Madison’s individual sports to still compete at the conference championship level, but without scoring points for the school or being officially recognized as champions. That’s golf, women’s swimming and women’s outdoor track. That overture hasn’t been well received.

“The team championship is the point of the conference tournament,” says Lyvers, the golfer. “Working as a team for a common goal. That’s our main goal for the whole season.”

Indeed, the James Madison swimming and diving season is pointed exclusively at that four-day meet in February. If everything broke perfectly, the Dukes may be able to have an NCAA qualifier, but more likely they would put everything into attempting to win that fifth straight title.

“To see what they’ve been pointing for yanked away is really difficult,” swimming coach Dane Pedersen says. “This decision has spiraled our athletes back to to that same feeling from COVID, the unknown.”

An emphasis on mental health? Try telling hundreds of athletes that their seasons will again end prematurely because the adults in charge can’t get along and have an antiquated, overly penal bylaw on the books that can be wielded as a cudgel.

“A lot of things in this league haven’t evolved,” says Byington, the men’s basketball coach, who played in the CAA at UNC Wilmington in the 1990s. “College athletics is trying to resolve to do what’s best for our student-athletes. This is contradicting anything that’s positive for them.”

When the CAA drops from 10 to nine members with the departure of James Madison, the poached likely will become the poacher. It will do its own raiding. When that time comes, Pedersen has a word of warning for potential new league members.

“This shines a light on what their priorities truly are in the league,” he says. “I would be careful of the company you’re looking to keep.”

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