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Opinion: If CAA Follows Through on JMU ban, it must Never Again Preach on Athlete Interest

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On Wednesday, the Colonial Athletic Association told James Madison that its student athletes would not be able to compete for conference championships if they officially announced their move to the Sun Belt.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Richmond at James Madison Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been no secret that the James Madison Dukes are expecting to move ranks from their current position in the Colonial Athletic Association to the Sun Belt in the near future. For football, that would mean a jump from the FCS to the FBS, which would be significant for the already-successful program. In fact it’s been rumored that an official announcement from the school could come as early as Friday, however, thanks to a CAA bylaw, that announcement will come with some hefty ramifications.

On Wednesday night it was reported that the conference informed JMU that all of it’s student athletes would be ineligible to compete for league championships if and when the school made the move official. The conference adopted a provision in 2012 that gives it the right to bar members from competing for league titles if said members intend to leave the CAA.

This would not be the first time the conference enforced the bylaw either. When Old Dominion left the league eight years ago for the FBS ranks, the CAA enacted the same ruling.

A JMU spokesperson told the Richmond Times Dispatch on Wednesday evening,

“As we head into a potentially monumental week for the future of James Madison University and our intercollegiate athletics program, we were extremely disappointed to be informed by the Colonial Athletic Association that, should the university accept an invitation to another conference, JMU student-athletes would not be allowed to compete for postseason conference team championships and, therefore, for the opportunity to earn NCAA automatic team qualification.”

This ban is significant for a multitude of reasons, the first being that it would stay in effect until JMU officially joins the Sun Belt; a transition that could not be complete until 2023. That means that no Dukes team would be able to compete for or claim a CAA title over the next two seasons.

The football program, which is currently ranked #3 in the country via the FCS polls and holds a 7-1 record, may still be able to win the conference title they are currently on pace to take due to separate bylaws. They also would be permitted to play in the FCS playoffs and compete for a national championship.

CAA Commissioner Joe Dantonio simply said in response to the expected pushback, “We have great respect for JMU as a conference... I’ll be honest. It’s not my job to determine whether it makes sense or doesn’t make sense. It’s my job to make sure the bylaws are enforced the way they’re written.”

The rule that is written, though, is one that will punish current athletes for a decision that will not go into effect until the future and, not only that, the CAA would be punishing perhaps its most successful program. The Dukes have appeared in the FCS playoffs seven years in a row (winning a national title in that span), claimed a national championship in women’s lacrosse in 2018 and won the conference title outright for men’s basketball last year.

If enacted, this bylaw would have ramifications that reach well beyond any conference title. The basketball programs would likely be unable to reach the NCAA tournament without being able to participate in a conference tournament. Any other sports with conference tournaments beginning this week would be unaffected as no official announcement of realignment has been made at this time.

2021 NCAA Division I FCS Football Championship - Quarterfinals - North Dakota v James Madison Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

This decree is a slap on the face to the Dukes for the simple crime of what? Wanting to better themselves in the long run and taking the opportunity to do so? Suddenly JMU’s athletes now face the all-to-harsh reality of being unable to compete for something they’ve worked (or will work) all season for. What's worse is that the punishment is not even being issued to those responsible.

It would be one thing if these repercussions fell solely on those in on the decision making processes but to drag athletes down goes against what the CAA and every conference in collegiate athletics stands for: the betterment and well-being of the student athlete.

The CAA’s own vision statement on its website reads in part: “CAA institutions work together to advance nationally competitive college athletic programs – coupled with outstanding academic programs – that empower student athletes as whole persons who strive at the highest level in every aspect of their lives.”

For the league to preach anything similar in the future if they follow through on this would be hypocritical in every sense of the word.

For some programs like football, the ban only partially strips them of their potential future hardware, but for others it may as well be a postseason ban altogether. No matter how you cut it, though, the enactment of this bylaw is nothing more than pettiness from a conference that’s been nothing but enhanced by this school and its teams. Without JMU the CAA would not hold the relevance it does in any juncture, whether it be FCS football or otherwise. To treat perhaps the most successful institution that’s dawned a “CAA” patch like this on their way out? Reprehensible.

If this comes to pass, best believe that other prospective and future CAA member won’t forget it. The conference is putting itself in a very peculiar position moving forward because, at some point, it will need to replace JMU. Who wants to join a league where leaving comes at such a cost? The CAA is confirming to us before our very eyes what many already knew: the idea of the student athlete being the main concern is laughable. Unless it is not within the governing body’s own self-interest, the student athlete never mattered.