A.M. Commentary: Tweet This: No Sun Belt

Posted: April 4, 2013

HARRISONBURG – It’s a Twitter story that won’t die.

If you search Google, you’ll find lots of reports suggesting that James Madison is about to join the smallest of small-time Division I-A conferences, the Deeper South-centric Sun Belt.

The chance of that happening, I’m told by the people who should know, is close to zero.

JMU, at least for now, has no interest in the Sun Belt. It doesn’t make sense geographically or academically to university officials, who continue to say they expect to make no decisions on conference alignment until this summer at the earliest. That’s when a consultant is scheduled to finish a study examining JMU’s options.

But in part because of Twitter, the Sun Belt rumors persist.

That’s one of the dangers of social media’s ever-growing role as a primary outlet for news — poorly researched, poorly worded, poorly edited reports stick in people’s minds as fact. There’s little nuance to a 140-character burst of words, Twitter’s limit.

So when a highly respected ESPN.com journalist, Brett McMurphy, tweeted this week that JMU and Liberty are “top candidates” for membership in the Sun Belt, I suspect many people linked together two assumptions: that the sourcing was rock-solid and that there was mutual interest between each school and the conference. That’s not McMurphy’s fault, but it shows the limits of quick bits of information as a replacement among some readers for detailed stories. Twitter is a great, empowering tool with the capacity to effect change, but it’s also a sloppy way to disseminate news.

In this case, unless people at JMU have suddenly broken character and become masters of deceit, the Twitter reports about the Dukes are dead wrong.

I do, however, think there’s been a shift in tone among Madison officials regarding I-A. Remember in September 2011 when athletic director Jeff Bourne said he thought JMU could be in a I-A league within two years? His frankness upset the higher-ups at Madison, who steadfastly had stressed their commitment to the I-AA Colonial Athletic Association. Now, it looks like Bourne had a crystal ball.

While Bourne’s timing might have been optimistic, the momentum appears to be swinging toward I-A, largely for two reasons: 1) peer football programs, such as Appalachian State and Old Dominion, have made the move, and 2) the university might need to find a new home for its basketball team now that the CAA has imploded.

Note the word “might.”

Madison has made no decision to leave I-AA — for good reason. Jumping to I-A comes with all kinds of costs. Not only would it require lots of money, but it would ratchet up the emphasis on sports at JMU, a development some would find inherently corrupting to a university’s purpose.

Oddly enough, you could argue that basketball would benefit from a few more years in the emaciated Colonial. By staying in a diluted conference, the Dukes’ chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament again would be magnified, thanks to the absence of VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion. That, in turn, might lure better players to Harrisonburg, which might draw bigger crowds to the Convocation Center, which might put a new arena on fast-forward, which might set the stage for a jump to a higher-quality all-sports league.

Or it might just bore people to death. Being a 16 seed — even if you’re lucky enough to get a play-in game (i.e., a potential victory rather than a certain stomping in the Round of 64) — would probably lose its allure quickly. Ditto a 15 seed. Especially when all of Madison’s traditional rivals (except William & Mary) are playing under brighter lights.

In a vague statement lamenting George Mason’s defection to the Atlantic 10, Bourne and JMU President Jonathan Alger made no mention of loyalty to the Colonial. Not that such Etch A Sketch reassurances matter. University bosses routinely pledge fealty to leagues, only to be next seen somersaulting to the bank with fat paychecks from their new conferences.

JMU could try to go half-and-half, but the Richmond Model — basketball in the Atlantic 10, football in the CAA — has scant appeal to the university, even if the A-10 were interested in the Dukes. Ideally, Madison wants all of its programs under one umbrella, which might eventually push it into …  Division I-A and Conference USA.

Speculative? Sure. That’s because JMU officials honestly appear to be uncertain where they want to take their $34.5 million sports program. Unless the ground shifts under their feet again this spring, they’ve got time to make a well-researched decision.

And, frankly, I have no strong sense of what that decision will be. But I do know I-A is no longer a backburner issue.

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