Pac-12 defections deliver a blow to the soul of college athletics

Aug. 13, 2023

President Murthy's op-ed originally published in The Oregonian. 

The developments in intercollegiate athletics earlier this month represent a tectonic shift. Within a few hours, five universities decided to leave the Pac-12 Conference, abandoning more than 100 years of sports history and tradition in favor of broadcast media dollars.

Some responded cynically to this news. Traditional and cable media deals negotiated by the Big 10 and the Big 12 conferences offered the five schools – University of Oregon, University of Washington, University of Utah, University of Arizona and Arizona State University – more guaranteed revenue than the Pac-12 could negotiate. It was simply a matter of money.

But the prevailing sentiment among many fans and current and former student-athletes was sadness, anger and dread about the prospect of games far away from home. We have lost the thread of what intercollegiate athletics has always been about – regional rivalries that elevate student-athlete competition while strengthening ties among leading universities through collaboration and interconnectedness.

No one knows this better than student-athletes themselves. We measure their extraordinary accomplishments in competition against their peer rivals. We appreciate their greatness in the context of all those who came before them. In the case of Oregon State University, our more than 129-year rivalry with the University of Oregon has inspired student-athletes and galvanized countless fans and Oregonians for generations.

That interconnectedness extends beyond the playing field and throughout local and regional economies. Regional rivalries among thriving intercollegiate teams boost the travel and hospitality industry and provide a reliable stream of tax revenue. As public universities supported by taxpayer dollars, we must be mindful that the threatened dissolution of the Pac-12 now puts these complex economic interdependencies at risk. The potential losses to Oregon State University and to the communities it serves will far outweigh the financial advantages that the University of Oregon stands to gain in a Big 10 media deal. For a small community like Corvallis, these impacts will be significant.

Student-athletes are at risk as well. Each year at OSU, more than 550 student-athletes are supported with scholarships, funded in part by media broadcast revenue, that help them achieve their academic and athletic goals. For many, attending a university is only possible through an athletic scholarship. Media rights revenue also supports investments in mental health, health care, nutrition and life skills. As Oregonians, we must continue our commitment to our student-athletes in both the classroom and in competition.

So where do we go from here? OSU will remain true to its education, research and statewide engagement missions. For the last nine years, OSU has been the state’s largest university, serving more than 35,200 students last year, and we anticipate strong enrollment numbers again this fall. With $470 million in research funding in fiscal year 2022, spanning important fields with deep community impact – from climate science to clean energy and robotics – OSU’s research funding grows by double-digit percentages annually. We expect that trajectory to continue. The more than 200,000 OSU alumni in Oregon and beyond expand Beaver Nation’s presence throughout the world.

While Oregon State continues to believe the preservation of the Pac-12 in some form is in the best interests of the remaining member institutions, student-athletes and fans, we also are exploring alternate paths forward. We come from a position of strength. This year, OSU's gymnastics team won the Pac-12 regular season title and had the All-Around Champion, track and field claimed Pac-12 individual titles and wrestling won the conference championship and had five individual champions. Since 2018, Oregon State is one of just two programs nationally- the other being Texas - to have its football team win at least 10 games in a season, have both its men's and women's basketball teams go to the Elite 8, and see its baseball and softball teams go to the Men's and Women's College World Series, respectively. OSU coaches and student-athletes have worked tirelessly to earn their place among the most highly regarded athletic programs in the nation. And our fans are passionate, loyal and committed.

Our north star continues to be the holistic development, health and well-being of OSU’s extraordinary students and student-athletes. We have been bolstered by the collective spirit of Beaver Nation and Oregonians who have contributed so much to our success. We respect the commitment that generations of fans have made to OSU Athletics, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to provide an outstanding fan experience.

The perseverance, tenacity and team spirit of student-athletes and fans remain the true soul of college athletics. They deserve better.