Although victories on the field draw significant attention, a courtroom win this week could be more important to the future of athletics at Washington State University and Oregon State University.
Judge Gary Libey of Whitman County Superior Court granted a preliminary injunction leaving the two universities as the only voting members on the Pac-12 Conference board. The other 10 conference members plan to appeal, and it is improbable that a decision in a Colfax courtroom will be the final say in a battle involving hundreds of millions of dollars and major institutions from six states. But the decision is significant and somewhat cathartic for WSU and OSU supporters, who have been jilted by longtime partners.
Last year, the University of Southern California and UCLA announced they are moving to the Big Ten Conference beginning next school year. Oregon and Washington eventually followed, and Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Stanford and California soon bolted for other major conferences.
And then there were two. The once-prestigious Pac-12 Conference was reduced to Washington State and Oregon State, leaving the land-grant institutions in the lurch.
The situation points out the absurdity of big-time college athletics. Despite being public institutions funded by taxpayers, the flagship universities in Washington and Oregon were not required to consider how their decisions would impact the rest of the state. As OSU President Jayathi Murthy said: “The decision to pull out of the Pac-12 by two state institutions was made very quickly and with little regard for the fallout to sister institutions, and to the taxpayers.”
Then again, sober observers long ago abandoned any pretense that athletic departments are a cog in a university’s larger purpose. They are (mostly) self-sustaining entities that maintain only a threadbare connection to the academic mission.
That connection has been corrupted by the extraordinary revenue generated by competitions between student-athletes. The Pac-12 Conference will have roughly $400 million to dole out among member institutions this year; it also has assets in terms of office space and TV studios and branding built through a coalition that dates back more than a century.
Those were the issues behind this week’s court ruling. Representatives for WSU and OSU argued that the departing members have no incentive to preserve the assets or the brand; the departing schools argued they have a right to retain voting rights until they actually leave.
“Conduct is what counts, and words don’t so much,” the judge said.
The conduct of Washington, Oregon and other departing schools leave WSU and OSU with little comfort. The other schools have demonstrated a willingness to eschew a 100-year partnership if a suitor waves enough money at them, destroying any trust that may have existed.
As mentioned, the court ruling likely will not be the final word on the issue. But it at least provides some hope that the athletic departments at the abandoned schools can rebuild something meaningful in terms of competition and revenue.
In truth, lawmakers in Olympia and Salem should have stepped in months ago and defended state-funded institutions of higher learning against harmful actions from sister institutions. Without such action, Washington State and Oregon State are left to hope that the court system can restore some modicum of fairness to the situation.