(The Center Square) – The Washington Supreme Court has been asked to consider discretionary review of a lower court order that currently grants control of the Pac-12 Conference to Washington State University and Oregon State University.
On Tuesday, Supreme Court commissioner Michael E. Johnston granted a stay in proceedings based on emergency motions sought by the University of Washington and the Pac-12 itself.
“The instant dispute arises from the Pac-12 breaking apart, much to the dismay or delight of collegiate sports fans (particularly football), depending on which side of the field they sit,” Johnston wrote in Tuesday’s ruling.
WSU and OSU have filed a lawsuit against the Pac-12, contending the other 10 member schools forfeited their right to control operations and assets worth millions of dollars after announcing earlier this year of their pending departures to other athletic conferences in 2024.
Pending trial, a superior court judge in Whitman County – where WSU’s home campus is located – issued a temporary restraining order in September that enjoined the Pac-12 board of directors from taking any action without unanimous consent. On Nov. 14, Judge Gary Libey then issued a preliminary injunction that only permits WSU and OSU’s representatives to be recognized as members of the conference’s board of directors and prohibits representatives from the 10 other schools to participate or vote in any board meetings.
In effect, the injunction “effectively embraces WSU’s view that … the departing schools automatically lost their board membership and voting rights,” Johnston wrote.
The board is comprised of the universities’ presidents or chancellors. All but two of the schools are public institutions supported in part by taxpayer dollars.
On Nov. 15, the University of Washington filed an emergency motion seeking a stay of the injunction, which was scheduled to take effect Nov. 20. Supreme Court deputy commissioner Walter Burton entered a temporary stay – opposed by WSU and OSU – followed by Johnston’s stay issued Tuesday.
The UW and Pac-12 are seeking discretionary review of the preliminary injunction. Answers and responses from the involved parties are due by Dec. 12. Johnston said there will be a determination on whether the Supreme Court will grant review or transfer the matter to a lower appellate court for consideration.
In the interim, Johnston said the temporary restraining order will remain in place because it “provides a mechanism” for the Pac-12 board to continue business as usual as long as representatives from all 12 schools “act with unanimity.”
At dispute is a provision in the Pac-12 bylaws regarding the timing of a member school’s formal notice of withdrawal from the conference without invoking penalties. On June 30, the southern California schools of USC and UCLA publicly announced plans to leave after Aug. 1, 2024 – the key date in question – to join the Big Ten Conference.
By the end of this summer, eight other conference schools – Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, Utah, and Washington – announced similar intentions to join the Big Ten, the Big 12 Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference next August.
“In my view,” wrote Johnston, “the provision is poorly written and possibly ambiguous. It gives no guidance as to what constitutes a formal notice of withdrawal … In short, this is a debatable issue.”
“Though the question is close, the equities arguably favor UW in light of the harshness of the preliminary injunction,” Johnston concluded, saying that allowing the temporary restraining order to remain instead would maintain “the status quo until the discretionary review plays out.”
At stake for the conference and universities are tens of millions of dollars from media and sponsorship rights.
Additionally, wrote Johnston, are “school reputations and individual collegiate programs (that) could be affected positively or negatively depending on the institution. Staffing levels will likely be affected one way or another. It cannot be doubted that athletic recruiting and student athletes attending or deciding which schools to attend are affected greatly by these events.”
The dispute is “largely about money,” said the court commissioner, but there are also “historical and sentimental aspects of this controversy, and the effect it has on students and staff loom large, again affecting all parties.”
While the legal challenges play out, WSU and OSU are also considering whether to recruit new membership from other universities to join the, in essence, Pac-2, or disband and seek future homes in another existing conference such as the Mountain West.
Known as the Conference of Champions, the Pac-12 has won more NCAA team national championships than any other conference in history. It currently includes 24 sports for 11 men’s and 13 women’s programs. Based in San Francisco, the conference is overseen by commissioner George Kliavkoff, whose role in the realignment process has been controversial.