News outlets from coast to coast have been running with the story that most James Madison University student athletes will be ineligible for their conference tourneys this year due to enforcement of a long-standing Colonial Athletic Association bylaw that restricts schools that are departing the conference from competition. James Madison is likely to announce their departure today, pending a vote in the state capital.
Not allowing the athletes to compete because of a move their administration is making doesn’t just feel unjust – it is unjust. And this is generally what the news media (aided by what must be said is an awful lot of anonymous quotes from Harrisonburg – we’ll get to that) is running with. It’s a bad rule and when the conference commissioner, Joe D’Antonio comes out with this quote: “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 as they are written.” It becomes clear that even the enforcement agent doesn’t stand behind it. It’s a bad rule, and it should be removed from the CAA Bylaws by the university presidents who have the power to do so.
If the social media outcry is to be believed, this rule isn’t just a bad rule. It is a rule that JMU’s student athletes had a real belief either didn’t exist or would not be enforced. This is important, so let’s share what is known:
- The JMU student athletes have reacted with surprise and outrage to the ruling
- The JMU Administration was well aware of the rule, having previously enforced it, and their respective coaching staffs should have been aware as well
- The CAA stopped posting their bylaws publicly five years ago, so the JMU student athletes were not able to view the current rules themselves
The hypothesis here seems very obvious – JMU student athletes were either not advised of the rule or were told it would be overturned when it was applied to them. And the students had no direct avenue to confirm or deny what they were told by the coaches and administration.
Does one expect a seventeen-year-old to read conference bylaws during the recruiting process? It’s reasonable to think that is unlikely. But should those bylaws be available so that they can review them, so that the media can publish the rules when they see events like JMU’s departure coming, or even so that opposing coaches can show them to students during that recruiting process? Absolutely! That transparency could have significantly lessened the damage from this ugly situation, and the CAA would look a lot better for it. Because the second side of this is also true:
JMU knew that their move to the Sun Belt was coming before anyone else did. Were they open and honest with their athletes that there was a healthy chance they would lose a year (or two) of potential autobids if they played for JMU during the transition? Given the surprise by the student athletes, one does not think so. That’s a tough recruiting pitch – JMU is likely not to be the only school to “forget” to mention something similar to this to their recruits.
That is why it is so important that the conference office is transparent, creating a backstop for student athletes to get the full truth. The rule itself isn’t where the CAA should be faulted here – the lack of transparency is. If the JMU front office was in any way dishonest with their students, the league should have been there to ensure that these bright, young, student athletes had access to unvarnished truth. Once again though, the CAA operates as a microcosm of all that is wrong in college athletics today:
- Lack of leadership.
- Lack of transparency.
- Letting the student athletes come out as the biggest losers, when they have done nothing wrong.
The folks in Richmond, same as it ever was, have checked all the wrong boxes.
The ineptness of the CAA office doesn’t take the onus off of Jeff Bourne and Jonathan Alger in Harrisonburg. The JMU administration fumbled while making a football move, another pox that we’ve seen across college athletics for decades now.
The JMU front office:
- Clearly did not communicate the real threat of this happening to their students or supporters.
- Have been making strategic leaks about the conference for years now (see: Flosports, basketball scheduling, the list goes on…) leading them to not be a trusted partner by their fellow CAA institutions, and making them less likely to get help now.
- Have not in recent history, if ever, prior to this week, proposed changing the bylaw that caused this ineligibility (which gives a pretty clear indication what they thought their chances were of winning that vote or their recent appeal)
- Are looking out for football above all other sports: a handful of sports at JMU don’t even know what conference they will be playing in next year.
- And of course, JMU President Alger just presided over the ruling to not allow Oklahoma State players postseason eligibility at the national level this year, a much harsher punishment than JMU is enduring today (and yes, as an Appeals board, they had options available to them, saying anything else is disingenuous). Actions speak louder than words – President Alger’s oversight shows us, both internally and externally, that his feelings toward student athletes are step for step in line with the NCAA’s – student athlete priorities are a distant second to cold hard cash.
We’ve seen articles from coast to coast, from local hero Shane Mettlen, to Dan Wolken at USA Today, Pat Forde at Sports Illustrated to whoever is over at Barstool, trashing the CAA. The CAA deserves what is coming to them, but the JMU administration deserves something similar. And so does the NCAA, the ultimate governing body. Because the experience of the James Madison student athlete today is nothing more than a look into the broader NCAA landscape.
Media members are taking the easy way out, another failed cog in the process, by pushing news cycle articles about a bad CAA Bylaw. We are failing the student athlete. It is no secret that the recruiting process is ugly, and that truths are bent to make schools look as bright as possible to the young men and women they are trying to bring within the gates. This is why the governing bodies, in this case the CAA and NCAA, need student athlete welfare to be the number one priority. When a conference chooses to hide their own bylaws, or the national office closes a five-year-old case by making current student athletes ineligible from competition, it is clear they are failing the athlete.
What the JMU players are going through this season is disgusting. But the answer isn’t to call out a bylaw, it’s to call for transparency. It’s to call for independence – as the folks making money off the backs of these student athletes are the ones overseeing the bylaws – and communicating them to the athletes. It’s to call for a better system. And not one of the articles to date has done that. JMU the school is not a victim here – in fact, they are the antagonist. But so is everyone else these student athletes were relying on: Conference office, National office, and the Media.
We have failed them. We can do better. Let’s start by demanding transparency.
Joe D’Antonio, this can begin with you: Prominently publish the CAA Bylaws on the league website immediately. Find a clear and simple way to show that you will support the student athletes that you claim to champion. Believe in transparency and be a leader.