Conference realignment trickle-down has officially reached the Football Championship Series, as the Sun Belt Conference officially announced the addition of James Madison University Saturday by a unanimous vote of its members’ CEOs.
The JMU Dukes have become a regular name in the FCS semifinals and championship games in the past few years, but their move — which won’t go into effect until June 2022 — has not been well received by their current conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA is barring the Dukes from competing in conference championships from now until their transition to the FBS. No, not the football team — every other JMU sport is barred from competing in postseason games EXCEPT for football, which will be allowed to represent the league in the national championship series playoffs. ESPN reported.
It’s an odd punishment for student-athletes who were not part of the decision, and whose athletic programs probably weren’t really part of the decision either. Football is king when it comes to conference decisions, and water polo and volleyball teams are left to the whims of athletic departments trying to get more TV profits and conference money in the Division I-A FBS. There are exceptions, of course, but generally, football is the rule. While the CAA can hide behind bylaws all they want, the fact that those bylaws exist is an insult to the student-athletes who chose to compete at the highest levels of their sport, and are now robbed of the opportunity to compete for a conference title because of the decisions of people very far removed from their everyday lives.
This fall’s conference realignment rush began in earnest after Texas and Oklahoma shocked the world — and the BIg 12 commissioner — with an announcement that they would be joining the SEC. While that one made waves — including the commissioner openly accusing ESPN of luring schools away from the Big 12 — lower-profile adjustments have been happening across the board since then, with Group of 5 schools like Cincinnati and Houston getting pulled up by the Big 12, and the American Athletic Conference filling the gaps with Rice, North Texas, up-and-comer UTSA and more. The AAC has ignited some frustration throughout other Group of 5 conferences — in particular, C-USA — with what some say amounts to poaching.
The Sun Belt, which JMU will be joining, has also announced recent expansion. Conference USA was forced to look elsewhere after nine of their schools announced departures to other conferences. With several Group of 5 schools having created legitimate CFP campaigns — whether respected by the committee or not — in the past few years, the G5 schools are no longer flying under the radar. There’s a legitimate effort from the AAC and the Sun Belt here to join the big boys in the Power 5 and prove that they’re just as worthy of being in contention, especially as the CFP management committee seriously considers an expanded playoff format.
But no matter who the winners here are, whether it’s the schools making money or the football teams getting a chance to prove themselves, there are real world consequences to the other student-athletes at these schools, so often overlooked in favor of increasing profit. This JMU ruling will affect athletes in fall, winter, and spring sports before the move becomes official next summer — essentially, the CAA feels like they have to punish someone in the divorce, so they’re taking it out on the kids.