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Lost in the Shuffle

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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During this constant fight for resources, the interests of the one entity that is supposed to be cultivated, promoted and protected must be kept in mind.

We have reached a breaking point in college athletics. The present landscape is divided and fragmented, with painful scars drawing a distorted line of demarcation between the have's and have-not's. Sports, in general, have taken the proverbial playing field against commitment, equality, fairness and perseverance -- the very traits the games so many cherish continue to instill. The pressing questions are no longer how much and how many; rather, simply, how. At this point, you have to squint just to see what lies ahead. 

Conferences with deep, time-honored ties are being sliced thin like deli meat. The new meal plan for many athletic departments seemingly has two distinctly-different options: bread by the loaf, or, for lack of a better phrase, a knuckle sandwich. Colleges and leagues alike have been placed in a unique juxtaposition, a pickle, so to speak, though this one bittersweet.   

Inherently, today's climate is not a byproduct of absolute impropriety. Unprecedented popularity, intertwined with unforeseen media diversification and growth, has elevated the profile of college football, for example, to completely new heights. From national oversight to local infrastructure, many brilliant, selfless individuals are working diligently as we speak towards making a very fluid situation as pragmatic as possible.

Institutions are chasing opportunity, as well they should. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern just recently accepted invitations to the Division I FBS Sun Belt Conference. Though both experienced remarkable success in the FCS Southern Conference, and have publicly stated their appreciation, the national stage the next level brings is potentially invaluable. More national exposure will increase school brand recognition, widen the student body recruiting base and allow for widespread campus growth. Conference payouts, television contracts and corporate advertising dollars from revenue sports will influence many angles of campus life.  

Throughout the celebrations at press conferences Wednesday in Boone, North Carolina and Statesboro, Georgia, was confusion and disappointment over how storied tenures at the FCS level will anticlimactically come to a close. Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are set to play full Southern Conference schedules this fall, but are ineligible for the league championship and postseason play as a part of the reclassification process. When the doors close at the end November, they will slam shut on players who have tirelessly pushed all of their various affiliations forward.   

These are two of the more storied programs in the annals of the FCS. A strong argument can be made that the Eagles and Mountaineers are the most identifiable names in 1-AA history. Together they have won nine national championships, all since 1985. From Dexter Coakley, Richie Williams and Armanti Edwards to Tracy Ham, Adrian Peterson and Jayson Foster, some of the most accomplished players in college football have donned the black and gold and true blue. The likes of Mack Brown and Jerry Moore, Erk Russell and Paul Johnson, have roamed the sidelines at Kidd Brewer and Paulson.   

Legacies that should be cherished will end unceremoniously, with two of the most talented teams in the land banned from the playoffs because of choices made by administrators and board members a floor up. History aside, seniors who have dedicated their lives to the game they love will have the one season all college players remember ripped right from them like a primary premolar. Because of executive decisions not their own, moves made to further the inclusiveness of higher learning, dreams of raising a championship banner will have to stay just that.

"The entire landscape has changed over the last several years. It's not uncommon for there to be what you might call 'lame duck years'. It can be awkward at times, but it can also be very business as usual," explained Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "On the football side, when you go from FCS to FBS, you start your FBS clock and you start adding scholarships...the NCAA does not allow Georgia Southern or Appalachian State to be eligible for the FCS championship this fall. I don't necessarily agree with the logic behind it, but it's an NCAA rule and it's not the first time that FCS teams have made the move and have had to take themselves out of postseason consideration."

It's, admittedly, a difficult scenario. Brands must be protected. Viability has to be maintained. For respected and valued lower-level leagues like the SoCon, efforts should undoubtedly be made to lessen the blow of departure and promote sustainability moving forward. Here, there are no easy answers. But one must ask what is gained by legislation that limits the opportunities of student-athletes, like the bans facing those at Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, among others. What is lost is unfathomable for those effected, time that can't be given back.

In this instance, the hard-working student-athlete should not be the mattress that allegedly eases the fall. Especially when there is no culpability or crime committed. During this constant fight for resources, the interests of the one entity that is supposed to be cultivated, promoted and protected must be kept directly in mind.   

"That is a devastating blow. I think it's obviously a terrible rule, getting punished for something that you didn't necessarily have a part in," explained former Georgia Southern quarterback, 2007 Walter Payton Award winner Jayson Foster. "When you go to Georgia Southern, you are here for Southern Conference championships and national titles. That's one of the reasons you came to school. As for the players, they could go 11-0 and leave their mark on history. That's where they can draw their motivation from, but that's going to be the main challenge for the coaching staff." 

Immediate ineligibility is going to be a startling reality for many veteran players.  

"I can't imagine being a senior not being able to win the SoCon title and compete for a national championship. This is what brings excitement to the players and seniors at App State. This could be a burden for the seniors right now, but at App State we are all family and I know those seniors will find what motivates them and have a phenominal senior season," explained former Appalachian State All-American linebacker Jacque Roman. "I think the NCAA should really look into this rule because a lot of seniors work hard to win a title and play for the big game. For them not to be able to accomplish a goal that they have been working on since their freshman year is not right at all.

One's position undoubtedly defines one's perspective. That is a sentiment worth merit in most every circumstance, certainly here. From some vantage point, current legislation makes good sense. From the stands, the press box and, most importantly, the sidelines, it's a justification that is very hard to see.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports