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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Pac-12 on its way to a meltdown

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: August 5, 2023, 6:02am

With “Oppenheimer” generating discussion about chain reactions and nuclear options, thoughts naturally turn to college football.

Don’t they?

Because the self-sustaining fission triggered by the University of Southern California and UCLA is threatening to blow up the Pac-12 Conference. Long the athletic home of the University of Washington and Washington State University — as well as their inferior brethren from our neighbor to the south — the Pac-12 is suffering from major fallout.

A little more than a year ago, the conference’s Southern California schools announced they are leaving in 2024 for the Big Ten Conference. That will put 16 schools in the math-challenged Big Ten. It also will mean a conference traditionally based in the Rust Belt stretches from New Jersey (Rutgers University, which joined in 2014) to Los Angeles.

But that was just the ignition.

Now, the University of Colorado has announced it is leaving the Pac-12; the University of Utah is rumored to be leaving; and, as of this writing, the University of Washington and University of Oregon are going to the Big Ten.

As occasional players on the national stage of college football, Washington and Oregon are the remaining gems in the shrinking Pac-12 crown. It is logical for the Big Ten to pursue them as members, adding to a West Coast beachhead in a quest for football dominance.

The reason for all this, naturally, is money. College football is the least egalitarian of sports, and the Big Ten has television deals that dwarf what the Pac-12 can secure for its member schools. Adding West Coast schools can increase revenue and enhance the conference’s profile.

Such priorities should be anathema for a research university. Although the Pac-12 is an athletic coalition, its underlying foundation is a collection of like-minded institutions, including some of the world’s most highly regarded colleges. Robert Oppenheimer, after all, was recruited from the University of California Berkeley to run the Manhattan Project — which resulted in the development of the atomic bomb and, 80 years later, a movie.

Then again, nobody shows up to cheer the math department. And few people donate to the philosophy department. And sociology research doesn’t generate TV coverage on Saturday afternoons — regardless of how exciting it might be.

But as the Pac-12 crumbles and as Washington and Oregon appear to be joining the caravan out of town, questions remain about the athletic futures of Washington State and Oregon State. As smaller schools with smaller budgets and smaller fan bases, the Cougars and Beavers could soon be orphaned.

As Greg Woods wrote in a column for The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review: “The reasons number about a thousand, but the main one revolves around leverage. Washington State has little of it. Somewhere in the pecking order, the Cougars would certainly make an attractive candidate to join another power conference if the Pac-12 can’t negotiate a new media-rights deal, but as things stand they sit behind other schools.”

Washington State and Oregon State could end up with the other Pac-12 leftovers and add additional schools to form a new conference. Or they could join another coalition of big-name schools — if they are invited. Or they could join a less-prestigious conference such as the Mountain West, which includes the likes of Boise State and the University of Wyoming.

The situation is fluid. And unpredictable. And, to be honest, kind of silly. While football plays a role in a university’s profile, it should have little to do with how that university is perceived. But it does.

So, as the Pac-12 self-immolates, following the reaction triggered by USC and UCLA, we are reminded of something else from “Oppenheimer.”

“We thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the entire world,” the scientist tells Albert Einstein. “What of it?” Einstein asks. Oppenheimer replies, “I believe we did.”