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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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In Our View: Pac-12’s demise leaves WSU, public in lurch

The Columbian

Saturday’s thrilling Apple Cup football game underscored much of what is right and what is wrong about big-time college athletics.

On the field, the Washington Huskies kicked a field goal on the final play to defeat Washington State, 24-21. The game even had a local angle for Clark County fans, with Union High School graduate Lincoln Victor catching a touchdown pass for WSU with six minutes to play.

But off-field machinations have been equally dramatic. Earlier in the week, officials from the state’s major colleges announced that their football teams will continue to annually meet on the field — at least until 2028.

Such a declaration would have been considered unnecessary just a year ago. But then the University of Washington announced it would be joining several other West Coast schools in leaving the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten Conference.

That means the Pac-12, which has a prestigious century-old history, will cease to exist next year. It also means there was doubt about whether the Huskies and Cougars would continue a gridiron rivalry that dates to 1900.

While the games and the rivalries and the pageantry highlight what is good about college athletics, the situation shines a spotlight on an ugliness that clouds those games.

Like the University of Washington, the University of Oregon also is leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, a Midwest-based conference that will soon extend from New Jersey to Los Angeles to Seattle. The reason, of course, is money, but that reasoning ignores the fact that athletic programs at public schools are owned by the people of the state.

As Michael Baumgartner, a former Washington state senator, told The Seattle Times: “These are public institutions, and this is going to have major ramifications on the higher-ed budget. The issues should have been decided in public, not by university presidents and TV executives in back rooms.”

This is not the first example of athletic officials acting as though they supersede the interests of a university at large, but it might be the most egregious. In the process, it has left officials at Washington State and Oregon State scrambling to determine their futures.

As the only Pac-12 schools that have not committed to other conferences next year, WSU and OSU are mired in court battles over the assets of the disintegrating conference while seeking opponents beyond this season. The schools reportedly are nearing a deal to play teams from the less-prestigious Mountain West Conference.

Regardless of future schedules, Washington State and Oregon State will be in lower-profile situations, generating less revenue and less attention for their universities. The fact that both schools are in relatively small college towns intensifies the impact for the communities and, ultimately, taxpayers. While UW officials have acted in their own best interest, they have ignored the interests of the people who fund the university for the general good of the public.

Last year, when UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, California officials ordered the school to pay at least $2 million a year to the University of California at Berkeley. Washington lawmakers should institute similar mitigation payments from the University of Washington to Washington State, a sister institution that has been damaged by UW’s departure.

Such payments would not salve all the wounds that have been inflicted upon Washington State. But they might help to eventually return the focus to the games on the field.