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Pac-12 lawsuit unveils dispute over governance as WSU and OSU seek clarity

The lawsuit seeks to settle who should have decision-making authority on the Pac-12's governing board.

PULLMAN, Wash. — New court records shed light on the legal dispute between Washington State University (WSU), Oregon State University (OSU) and the Pac-12 conference. The universities are suing the Pac-12, seeking clarity on rules for departing schools. 

Last week, inside the Whitman County Courthouse, attorneys representing the Pac-12 and WSU/OSU clashed over whether ten departing schools had formally submitted withdrawal notices. The unfolding events over the past months provide a clearer understanding of this disagreement.

At the core of the WSU and OSU lawsuit is the question of who should have decision-making authority on the Pac-12's governing board. The final two schools argue that they should hold sole control over the conference's future decisions, especially concerning potential salvaging efforts.

RELATED: Judge grants temporary restraining order against PAC-12 to prevent future meetings

They base their argument on the conference by-laws, which state that any schools giving notice of withdrawal before August 1, 2024, will be removed from the board.

Recent court documents reveal that at least two schools planning to depart after this season may have anticipated their removal from long-term decision-making. Almost identical letters from the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, dated August 4, state that they will not grant media rights authorization to the conference after August 1, 2024. Both schools clarify that this is not a notice of withdrawal.

However, Oregon and UW write they expect to "remain an active and participating member in the Conference" through that August date, when the current media rights agreement ends. 

Both schools seemed to anticipate and acknowledge they'd be barred from making some decisions about the conference.

The letters both state:

"I understand the University will be excluded from Conference discussions pertaining to matters occurring after August 1, 2024, such as media rights agreements and new Conference member considerations."

In seeking a temporary restraining order, which was granted September 11 by Whitman County judge Gary Libey, WSU and OSU argued the Pac-12 and Commissioner George Kliavkoff were planning to hold a September 13 meeting to decide such future issues. 

The Pac-12, in its court filings, denies that Oregon, the University of Washington and six other members have issued a notice of withdrawal.

RELATED: 'Still playing Cougar football' | WSU president speaks on conference realignment, where the Cougs go from here

During arguments on September 11, attorneys for WSU and OSU asserted that the departing schools had made their intention to leave the Pac-12 known to the world, being publicly welcomed by rival conferences they plan to join next year.

Eric MacMichael, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs at that hearing, argued the Pac-12 was violating its own bylaws and treating eight schools differently than USC and UCLA, two other members that announced their future withdrawal in June 2022.

“It’s been very clear for the last 14 months that members who announce they’re leaving and joining competitors can no longer be members of the board or make decisions on behalf of the conference.” MacMichael said. 

Per court records, including the declaration from Commissioner Kliavkoff, USC and UCLA were immediately removed from the conference board after June 30 phone calls where Pac-12 general counsel says the schools gave notice of withdrawal. USC and UCLA, per letters included as exhibits in Kliavkoff's declaration, deny they gave official notice of withdrawal.

Another exhibit includes a text message forwarded by email from Kliavkoff to a conference attorney.

The text, from University of Colorado Chancellor Phil DiStefano, reads: "Our board will vote this afternoon at 3:00 to join the Big 12 Conference. It was not any easy decision and I realize its impact on the other members."

A letter dated the next day from PAC-12 general counsel to CU says the chancellor and school's representation on the Pac-12's Board of Directors automatically ceases effective immediately, and CU no longer has the right to vote on any matter before the Board.

On August 18, CU responded and "clarifies it did not withdraw from the Pac-12 conference" but instead would grant media rights to the Big 12 conference on August 2, 2024.

Following the letters from UW and Oregon, Arizona, ASU, and Utah issued public statements that they would join the Big 12 Conference next season; court records state the Pac-12 has received no other correspondence from Arizona or Utah regarding withdrawal.

ASU did send a text to Kliavkoff stating, "[w]e are tied at the hip with Arizona in this part of our life and will need to go to the Big 12..."

Stanford and Cal each called the commissioner September 1, court documents say, to inform him they'd accept invites to join the Atlantic Athletic Conference after August 1, 2024. 

The central issue for the court to decide revolves around defining what constitutes a notice of withdrawal and whether departing schools can retain their seats on the board.

A date for a court hearing to address the lawsuit has not been set. 

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