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Opinion: Conference USA legal battle paints dark cloud over conference realignment

In the world of college athletics, it’s common to see schools move from conference to conference and division to division in an effort to find the perfect fit for them.

Many factors are considered when a university decides to relocate to compete in a new conference, such as conference prestige, recruiting, traveling costs, annual revenue and more.

Conference realignment is something that won’t be going away any time soon. Just over the past few months, there have been several seismic shifts at the Division 1 level of college athletics.

Timeline of 2021 Conference Realignment

It started in late July when Oklahoma and Texas, two of most valuable brands in all of college sports, announced their plans to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference by July 1, 2025, causing a domino effect across other conferences.

The Big 12 announced the additions of Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida from the American Athletic Conference and BYU from the West Coast Conference on Sept. 10.

The AAC turned around and snagged six teams from Conference USA on Oct. 19: North Texas, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Florida Atlantic, Rice, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Charlotte.

The defections continued for Conference USA as the Sun Belt plucked Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss from the conference on Oct. 30. In addition, they also grabbed James Madison from the Colonial Athletic Conference. These four schools were initially set to join the Sun Belt by July 1, 2023.

The once 14-team Conference USA was left with just five members in the matter of a month.

The conference didn’t waste any time in finding new members, adding Liberty from the Atlantic Sun Conference, New Mexico State from the Western Athletic Conference, Jacksonville State from the Ohio Valley Conference and Sam Houston State from the Southland Conference. These additions were announced on Nov. 6.

Drama Builds in Conference USA

Still, the drama doesn’t end there for the Conference USA.

Traditionally when schools change conferences, they have two viable options.

The first option is to wait the number of months or years upon announcing their intentions to leave their conference as stated in the conference bylaws. This number typically ranges from two years to five years depending on the conference.

The second option is to pay a buyout fee. This buyout fee changes from conference to conference, but it is usually a fixed amount that increases based on the number of months or years left upon a school announcing their departure.

Most of the time, conference realignment is a relatively peaceful transition. University presidents and conference executives often meet and negotiate buyouts that will appease both sides.

However, Conference USA has had anything but peace.

In December, Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Miss banded together and declared their intentions to leave for the Sun Belt by July 1, 2022. All three schools also announced that they were open to discuss a buyout. This move came not long after James Madison announced that they would join the Sun Belt in 2022.

Their announcement goes directly against Conference USA’s bylaws, which states that all school withdrawals must be effective by July 1 of the year they plan to withdrawal. In addition, schools must give the conference a 14-month notice of their intentions to withdrawal.

Additionally, the conference’s bylaws state that schools who are leaving must forfeit future conference money.

Still, the three schools didn’t back down, again announcing their intentions to leave the conference in time for the 2022-2023 athletic year by June 30 on Feb. 11.

The announcement went virtually unnoticed by Conference USA, who announced the Fall 2022 college football schedule including the three schools on Feb. 15.

Conference USA Legal Battle

The situation has now turned into a messy legal battle.

On Feb. 22, Marshall filed a lawsuit against Conference USA in response to them filing for arbitration. Two days later, the Cabell County Circuit Court granted Marshall a temporary restraining order against Conference USA, which will be in effect until March 7.

These actions have resulted in mounting frustration for both sides, but the real issue here isn’t about the schools wanting to leave early. It’s about Conference USA and the fact that they have blown this issue out of proportion.

They have made themselves look like sore losers in an attempt to hold their defecting institutions hostage for as long as they can despite this being a battle they have already lost.

It’s also become increasingly evident that they won’t sit down and discuss the matter. The schools have come out and said Conference USA won’t engage in  negotiations for some kind of buyout.

What’s Next?

The conference has also dragged the legal battle into the public eye in an attempt to garner support.

In a statement released on Feb. 15, the conference said, “The C-USA Board of Directors will exhaust all necessary legal actions to ensure all members meet their contractual obligations as defined by and agreed to in the Conference USA Bylaws.”

Instead of support, this move has embarrassed the conference as a whole and shows just how desperate they are trying to exert power over their departing members rather than simply taking the money being offered to them.

The statement also reveals that the league will go to great lengths to try and delay the inevitable. After all, the Sun Belt usually announces their Fall 2022 schedules on March 1.

Conference USA’s mishandling of the situation has left a dark stain on the most recent round of conference realignment. You’d have to go back 2011 to find something of a similar magnitude, when Big 12 schools sued to try to delay Texas A&M’s move to the SEC.

That notion failed. This legal battle also has the potential to end with Conference USA on the short end of the stick, assuming everything the schools have said is true.

For the sanctity of college athletics, I hope that this situation can come to a peaceful resolve.

For Conference USA, however, this display could result in the downfall of what has since become an unstable conference.

Written by Austin Bruce, Co-Sports Editor. Photo courtesy of The Spectator.

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