Banning athletes from conference tournaments over realignment timelines sucks and nobody should do it
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Last Tuesday, UIC's athletic department got some terrible news. Because UIC did not provide a year's notice before they announced they planned to join the MVC, the Horizon League planned to enforce their league bylaws and prohibit UIC athletes from participating in any Horizon League championship events.
The Horizon League joined the America East (Stony Brook) and the CAA (James Madison) in enforcing postseason bans.
News of the championship ban was predictably difficult for all UIC athletes. But the news really stung the school's swimmers and divers.
Anna Scovill, a senior from nearby Naperville, told me her teammates found out about the Horizon's decision late on Tuesday, like the rest of the UIC athletic department. But unlike her classmates on the basketball or volleyball team, Anna's regular season was over.
She was scheduled to compete in Indianapolis for the Horizon League championship meet this Wednesday. She got six days notice that her collegiate swimming career was now over.
"I've been swimming for the last 14 years, and I just wasn't prepared for this to be the end of my career." she told me. "People forget just how long the swimming season is. We've been waking up early, training and competing since September, with everything building up to this event."
"There were a lot of tears when we found out. I'm not going to lie to you."
SBU Ad Shawn Heilbron told me that his athletes had a similar experience with the America East. "Our swimmers found out about a week before the championship meets. We've been trying to find them other meets to compete in, but this was particularly hard for them."
Those early morning practices, the travel and the injuries weren't the only sacrifices these athletes made. Flames men's basketball player Jamie Ahale came to Chicago from Australia. He told me that he hasn't had a chance to see his family for two years.
"My number one goal when I got here was to win a conference championship. That was more important to me than any individual accolades or anything else. We know that in our league, if you click at just the right time, anything can happen."
The news was difficult for athletes at Stony Brook too. McKenzie Bushee, a senior forward for the Seawolves women's basketball, had good reason to be excited for March. Her squad sat comfortably in first place in the America East, and if they kept playing at a high level, they'd be in a great position to make the NCAA Tournament.
She told me that her coaching staff told the team about the AE's decision a few hours before they were supposed to play at Binghamton. "There was so much disappointment...it was really hard news for us to hear." Despite getting that emotional bombshell, the Seawolves battled through to win, 49-48. "I'm so proud of our team, and our program, for how we came together. That was a tough win."
Heilbron told me that while he was aware this was a possibility, he was surprised that the America East took this action. "We were open and honest with the league office about our conversations with the CAA, and we believed we conducted ourselves in a manner that would allow a smooth transition." Heilbron also told me the school would honor all required exit fees. UIC AD Michael Lipitz told me the same, that UIC would honor all financial obligations related to the transition.
UIC and SBU officials and coaches were legitimately surprised that their conferences decided to enforce these postseason bans, even though both were aware of the bylaws on the books and knew it was a possibility. Part of their surprise came from the fact that even those many other constitutions have similar bylaws, not every league decides to enforce them.
18 conferences have dealt with some membership change over the last round of realignment, and by my count, only four imposed athlete-centered penalties on the department programs. The Horizon, CAA and AE enforced postseason bans, and the Southland voted to boot their departing programs early.
Why do these bylaws even exist?
It's a good question! I reached out to the Horizon League, along with the president's office at Northern Kentucky, Youngstown State, Detroit Mercy, and UW-Milwaukee. Nobody called me back.
Horizon League commissioner, Julie Roe Lach, did, however, talk to the Indianapolis Star. Here was her rationale for the bylaws:
“If Texas and Oklahoma can give notice, it seems as though UIC should be able to do the same,” Roe Lach says. “Some may ask: ‘Why does it matter?’ Implications on scheduling, lost league opponents, figuring out more non-league opponents, lost TV games – there’s a significant ripple effect. That’s why the one-year notice seemed reasonable to allow members who wanted to leave for a different neighborhood, so to speak, to leave in a collegial way.”
Heilbron also told me that the AE instituted the bylaw for similar reasons. From talking to other conference commissioners, ADs and industry insiders, this type of language was pretty common in the early 2010s. League schedules were often built multiple years in advance, and the industry standard was for a departing school to usually play a season as a "lame duck." This type of bylaw would not have been considered especially controversial....building new schedules on the fly would have been considered a major problem.
Norms have changed, and yes, that makes hypocrites of nearly everybody
The America East conference enforced those rules when Boston University departed in 2013, and Stony Brook supported those measures. The Indianapolis Star pointed out that yes, not only has the Horizon League had those rules on the books for a while, that UIC (under different leadership) was the one who made the original motion to update the rule.
But Heilbron argues that college sports are in a very different world right now. "After COVID, it became very clear that we could schedule games or make other administrative decisions much more quickly." Mid-major conferences like the AE and Horizon do not schedule league games out several years in advance currently, and unlike Texas and Oklahoma, there are no massive TV contracts to take into account.
For some context, Texas and Oklahoma may need to pay a combined $150 million to leave the Big 12 early. That's more than the entire endowment for some Horizon League schools. It's impossible to compare the Texas situation to anything any school does at the Mid-Major level.
Heilbron told me that the AE was able to add new member NJIT, even during COVID, with minimal disruptions, and that the league was supportive of Hartford's when they made the decision to pursue D-III membership.
It isn't lost on Stony Brook that they are joining a conference who did the exact same thing to a departing member.
"I think it's unfortunate what happened to our athletes, I think it's unfortunate what happened at UIC, and at JMU. We don't believe these bylaws have a place in current college athletics, and we plan to advocate for their removal in the CAA."
If we're keeping score, Stony Brook and UIC wouldn't be the only schools who have acted hypocritically. Northern Kentucky joined the Horizon League after breaking established norms and leaving the ASUN 1) before their reclassification to D-I was even complete and 2) without giving extended notice to the league. Multiple industry sources familiar with the situation also told Extra Points that multiple Horizon League schools expressed interest in joining the MVC as well, including Northern Kentucky. And don't just take my word for it, CBS had this too.
Would any of them have acted differently if they suddenly had an opportunity to move to a different league? Probably not!
But why aren't schools like UIC and Stony Brook giving more advance notice?
Because norms are changing in college sports, and that makes these bylaws not just hurtful to athletes, but completely ineffective
"Nowadays, the longer you wait, the harder the transition can become. Your athletes aren't participating in joint SAAC meetings, your school can't engage in committees about athlete health and well-being." Heilbron told me.
At the Mid-Major level, lame-duck periods are getting shorter and shorter. Southern Indiana just announced they're joining the OVC in...five months. That's about the same timetable for UT-Arlington's transition. Or Monmouth and the CAA.
Multiple industry sources told me that bylaws that would enforce postseason bans would not be effective in preventing, or even delaying, conference realignment. If anything, these bylaws would create incentives for athletic departments to hide their intentions until the last possible moment, perhaps in May, which would only make planning even more difficult for conference offices.
Officials at Stony Brook and UIC told me that they were forthright and honest with their conference offices about their discussions before any invitations were accepted. Texas and Oklahoma, of course, were not. Is the latter the type of policy conference offices really want to incentivize?
If anything, enforcing these rules could actually hurt the schools that remain
In covering conference realignment over the last two years, multiple people at multiple schools, conferences and businesses have told me that how leagues handle the transition process is absolutely a factor when other schools decide which league to join.
As one industry source told me, "If you're thinking about dating somebody, and you know their last three relationships ended in huge fights and they're always talking about how crazy their exes are...that has to raise a red flag, right? It's a similar factor in conference realignment. It may not be enough of a red flag to keep a school from joining a league, but it's certainly a factor."
Officials at both UIC and Stony Brook told me that while they're not completely ruling anything out, both schools are likely to consider how their transitions from the Horizon and AE went when setting up out of conference schedules in the future. If you're a school that wants to play games in Chicago or Long Island for recruiting purposes, do you really want to burn a relationship that could make that happen?
If enforcing the rules doesn't really help member schools, and the penalties fall harder on the athletes, what's the point of doing any of this?
Sure, you could cling to the bylaws and punish the departing schools. The letter of the law gives conference offices the power to do this, and yes, one could very credibly argue that UIC, SBU and JMU shouldn't have supported those rules to begin with. Sowing, Reaping and whatnot.
But who benefits by doing this? Not the conferences and remaining schools. They're not protected from future defections and risk burning bridges in a small industry. Nobody really gains financially from holding the athletes out.
All it does is take away an important competitive experience from college athletes who had absolutely nothing to do with any of these decisions.
"I'd just want to remind them that UIC's decision to move to the Missouri Valley Conference was 100% out of control. The coaches didn't do that, and the athletes didn't do that. Keeping us out of these tournaments doesn't hurt the people who made those decisions. It hurts us." Scovil told me.
At the end of the day, folks who work in college sports and higher education love to talk about the educational benefits of this enterprise. How college sports can help athletes learn about teamwork, about putting others above themselves, about sacrificing to achieve a greater goal. Those are powerful lessons!
What kinds of lessons are athletes learning from watching these administrators? That it's okay to bludgeon others with the law when you have an advantage? That high-minded principles go out the window when it suits you? That it's okay to be petty?
Look. Everybody reading this newsletter loves college athletics. But if you really love college athletics, you've got to love college athletes too.
It's very hard to reconcile these decisions with a love for college athletes, no matter what anybody did in 2013, and no matter what the bylaws say.
If league rules are what's keeping college presidents from doing the right thing, then everybody ought to change those rules, right away.
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