By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — For Albany and Stony Brook, two prestigious universities in the SUNY system, it was supposed to be a banner day for their football programs.
The Great Danes and Seawolves were announced yesterday as the newest members of the CAA football conference — a huge step up in weight class from their former conferences, the Northeast Conference and Big South Conference, respectively.
For them, it's a great day.
But in the announcement of their inclusion in one of the best conferences in FCS football, plenty of questions remain about their CAA-sponsored football conference. Too many, in fact.
Albany and Stony Brook are joining the "CAA Football Conference" only, not the CAA all-sports conference.
It's a critical distinction that deserves explanation.
The Great Danes and Seawolves will continue to compete in America East in all other sports, including men's basketball.
It's only in football that they will be competing in this football-only construct called the "CAA Football Conference".
While the "CAA Football Conference" is named after the CAA and has the same commissioner, Tom Yeager, as the CAA all-sports conference, these are in reality two separate entities, with different handbooks and regulations.
The construct came into being when the CAA originally took over the conference from the Atlantic 10 back in 2007.
Rather than fully integrate the Atlantic 10 Conference into the CAA, it was decided instead to create the "CAA Football Conference" instead, and make it an affiliate of the CAA all-sports conference.
At that time, the football conference consisted of 12 members, including six members in the CAA in all other sports.
And at that time, the rules for the football side of the house were drawn up for a conference that had some members from the A-10, a couple from America East and one from the Big East. But, crucially, the CAA all-sports members were a large majority.
There are other FCS conferences that had set things up in a similar fashion. The Missouri Valley Football Conference currently has 10 members, and has a similar arrangement with football conference members.
Fast forward to 2012.
When Old Dominion and Georgia State announced their intention to leave the league starting in 2013, the number of full-time CAA members in the "CAA Football Conference" dropped from a majority of six members to a plurality of four teams.
And with the announcement yesterday of Albany and Stony Brook as football members, that number does not change. There are still only four CAA all-sports members in the football conference.
Think this doesn't matter? Think again.
First of all, now the commissioner of the CAA is supposed to be the spokesperson of a football conference that is outnumbered by its non-CAA members.
It's easy to advocate for a conference where you are representing the interests of all its members vociferously, or even the CAA membership back in 2007, when all-sports members comprised the great majority of the schools.
This method has worked extremely well for the CAA and Missouri Valley football conferences over the last five years.
But how can this be done with the membership of the CAA football conference as it will stand now in 2014?
With a simple plurality of all-sports members in the conferencem what's in the best interest in the CAA football may not necessarily be in the best interests of the CAA all-sports conference.
What if — to take a ridiculous example — UMBC, a member of the America East Conference in all sports but football, decided to start a football program tomorrow?
It would give America East five members of the "CAA Football Conference".
Adding a new member would certainly be a good thing for CAA football, but bad for CAA all-sports, as its members would be less in control of it's football "affiliate", as it's stated in the bylaws, than the members of its administering conference.
Commissioners also, of course, have a huge say in TV deals as well.
Would the CAA commissioner lobby very hard for, say, an A-10 all-sports team to be a part of the CAA conference TV package with NBC Sports Network, which televises both CAA football and CAA college basketball?
Considering former CAA member Virginia Commonwealth recently moved from the CAA to the A-10, a move that was not without bitterness on both sides, this isn't merely an academic argument.
And looking over the CAA bylaws, there are plenty of indications that governing in the new CAA will be a huge challenge, even with the membership knotted at four CAA all-sports members (Delaware, Towson, William & Mary, James Madison), four America East members (Maine, New Hampshire, Albany, Stony Brook), one Big East member (Villanova), and one A-10 member (Richmond).
Take, for example, the quorum rules on any conference issues or bylaws, which requires two-thirds vote of the conference's members, plus one.
As written, all the America East presidents can now literally choose to stop business in the conference by refusing to attend the meetings.
Before, it would have been theoretically possible to prevent a quorum if all the disparate members got together and organized something, but doing so would have been extremely unlikely.
But now, all that would need to be done is to have the members of one competing non-football conference to refuse to meet.
This is an incredibly powerful lever that the America East can wield against the CAA.
For example, what if, say, the football TV schedule doesn't feature enough America East teams?
Or what if the CAA refuses to schedule America East teams in men's basketball?
Would they do that? It's impossible to know for sure. Maybe not. But with the rules the way they are and the new affiliates entering the conference, they could.
Then there's the matter of the day-to-day operations of the conference, which is set by a "board of directors of CAA Football", comprising of each school's director of athletics.
CAA all-sports members would certainly be motivated in football governance issues, since it's the same commissioner of both conferences.
And again, this worked in 2007 because the CAA all-sports teams formed the majority of the members of the CAA football conference.
But would that be the case today for the six affilates from other all-sports conferences — or seven, if Rhode Island, which has been invited to remain instead of moving to the Northeast Conference, stays in the CAA football conference?
Put it this way, given the choice, is Villanova's athletic director going to the Big East basketball meetings in Florida, or the CAA football meeetings in Virginia?
Making matters even worse, looking further at the CAA football bylaws, is the rules governing any changes to those rules.
Rule changes require a two-thirds majority be league members, or a simple majority if a quorum is present.
In 2012, two of those members include Old Dominion and Georgia State, members who were allowed to compete for the CAA football championship, but not any of the other CAA all-sports championships.
It seems fair to say that they will not be very motivated to vote to change the government structure that's favorable to the conferene they're leaving.
It also seems fair to say that New Hampshire or Maine, two members of America East, will also not be motivated to change the rules for the CAA football conference when, in a year, their conference, America East, will be in a more favorable position in the football conference.
That's four teams that can prevent any changes to the rules – that can prevent quorums, or prevent any chance to vote on any rule changes.
The addition of Albany and Stony Brook is not simply "adding geographic balance to the league," as Yeager said on Thursday.
It fundamentally changes the structure of CAA football — and creates a situation that raises a lot more questions than answers about the direction of that conference.
Whether Yeager knows it or not, he is undertaking a brave new chapter in the organization of a football conference at the FCS level.
One that may work, or may not.