Marshall, Conference USA at odds over conference reorganization

Marshall University on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Conference USA to speed up the transition to the Sun Belt Conference, a Division I conference that the university plans to join by the summer.

The lawsuit was filed in response to Conference USA’s demand for arbitration in Dallas after Marshall. announced last year that he would join the Sun Belt. The move makes Marshall the third school to join the conference amid months of shuffling among NCAA universities in an era of realignment that changed the college sports landscape.

Marshall is one of several NCAA schools publicly feuding with their conference in response to recent shuffles, including last year’s big move. Texas and Oklahoma leave the G12 and move to the Southeast Conference.

Earlier this month, Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Mississippi announced they would be leaving Conference USA at the end of the 2021-22 school year, June 30.

According to the league’s bylaws, member schools must give 14 months’ notice before they leave the conference, meaning universities would have to give notice in May 2021 to leave in July 2022. On October 11, Southern Mississippi said the league refused to negotiate terms for an early exit.

“The unwillingness of the conference to discuss the concept of secession this year causes confusion and doubts among all interested parties,” Southern Mississippi said. “The rest of Conference USA deserve confidence in their schedules as they plan to compete next year.”

According to the lawsuit, Marshall first notified Conference USA of his intention to withdraw from the league on November 11. July 1, 2021. In January, he notified the league three more times, indicating that he planned to end his membership on July 1, 2022, and asked not to be included in any of the league’s sports schedules in the fall.

The US Conference released its 2022 football schedule last week, which included Marshall, Old Dominion and South Mississippi, saying the league intends to move forward with all 14 of its members.

The league said in a statement that it will “exhaust all necessary legal action” to force member schools to honor their contracts.

The US conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Marshall is seeking to resolve the lawsuit in the court of his home county in West Virginia, rather than arbitration, which the league prefers. In its lawsuit, the university claimed that when Marshall signed the Conference USA membership agreement in 2003, there was no language in the bylaws requiring arbitration if a member school decided to leave the conference.

When asked why Marshall is trying to hasten its exit from Conference USA, Jason Corriher, the university’s assistant athletic director for media relations, issued a statement citing “the interests of Marshall’s student athletes and loyal fans.” The statement added that the university wanted to find a peaceful solution, but the conference had given up on trying to discuss it.

The lawsuit, Marshall said in a second statement, is “the beginning of a lawsuit designed to protect our rights, help us reach an agreement in a timely manner, and clear the way for our transition to conference membership.” Corriher said the school had no desire to talk further about the lawsuit.

The Sun Belt declined to comment, citing Marshall’s public statements instead.

Stony Brook (America East), University of Illinois Chicago (Horizon League) and James Madison (Colonial Athletic Conference) have decided to leave their leagues starting with the 2022-23 school year.

In response, the conferences banned varsity teams from all conference team championships, citing existing league bylaws that disqualified high school sports teams from participating in the postseason if a member institution intended to withdraw from the conference.

This is the latest example of the bitterness of the conference’s reorganization, with student-athletes who have been banned from competing feeling the worst of contractual disputes.

Last week, Stony Brook, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and James Madison released a joint statement asking them to remove membership transition provisions at conferences that directly affect student athletes.

“Student-athletes across the country have coped admirably with the physical and mental losses of the last two years affected by the pandemic,” the statement said. “No conferences should impose participation penalties that cause additional, unnecessary harm.”