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Ducks’ departure from Pac-12 has some Oregon lawmakers ready to act

State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, pictured here in a 2019 file photo, is among lawmakers who are calling for action after the University of Oregon announced it would leave the Pac-12.
Bradley W. Parks
State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, pictured here in a 2019 file photo, is among lawmakers who are calling for action after the University of Oregon announced it would leave the Pac-12.

One week after the University of Oregon announced it’s departure to the Big Ten, people are still grappling with the news and its unclear impacts on the state.

State Rep. David Gomberg was driving to Eastern Oregon last week when he got an urgent call.

It was a lobbyist for Oregon State University, wondering if Gomberg — a former student body president at the Corvallis institution — could do anything to stop a major shakeup that will upend college athletics in the state. Could a call to Gov. Tina Kotek, the lobbyist wondered, help stop the University of Oregon from leaving the Pac-12 athletic conference?

Gomberg never got a chance to find out.

“By the time I landed in a place with a clear signal the deal was done,” the Democrat from Otis said Friday.

The news that the University of Oregon and the University of Washington will be jumping ship from the Pac-12 conference threatens to upend long-established athletic traditions in Oregon. It also looks likely to spell doom for the Pac-12, which will dwindle to just four schools in 2024, barring expansion.

Among the questions that have surfaced in the last week:

For now, answers to these questions are elusive. But a growing cadre of state lawmakers are preparing to dig in.

In a statehouse where around two dozen lawmakers claim a history with one school or the other (state Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, is among those who attended both) the news of Oregon’s defection has raised hackles and created new worries among some, and intrigued others.

“I’m very concerned and not only do I think it is damaging to ALL sports at OSU, I don’t think it is an appropriate choice for student athletes,” state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Democrat who represents Corvallis and touts a master’s degree from OSU, said in a text message. “Public institutions should never put athletic revenue in front of academic success.”

State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis agrees. The OSU grad issued a statement last week calling on House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, to create a legislative committee to look into the unintended consequences of UO’s defection.

“There are many unanswered questions about what these moves mean for Oregonians beyond just the ending of one of the nation’s longest-running rivalry football games,” Boshart Davis, R-Albany, said in the statement. Among them, she said: how increased travel costs for UO teams, and decreased sports revenues at OSU, would impact state coffers.

“If one of our major universities is going to make a unilateral decision that could impact Oregon’s budget, we should at least understand the full impacts,” she said. “At the most, the people’s representatives should have a say.”

While it’s not clear the changes to UO and OSU athletics will impact the state budget, they will undoubtedly have a major influence on how much the universities take in from their highest-profile sports.

Boshart Davis said this week she’d asked for clarity from legislative attorneys about what power lawmakers might have to influence UO’s impending departure from the Pac-12. As of Friday morning, she was still waiting to hear back. Rayfield could not be reached for comment.

One lawmaker has been arguing for months that the Legislature should have the right to block moves like the one UO is planning. State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, introduced a bill in this year’s legislative session that would have required lawmakers to bless any decision by a university to change its athletic conference.

Evans pitched the bill as a way to ensure the public interest wasn’t thrown out the window as universities made decisions primarily based on attracting big money. The idea got a single hearing, then quietly died. For his trouble, Evans said in testimony, he “lost friends, I have lost supporters, I’ve had people suggest things about my anatomy that honestly I still can’t figure out with a map.”

Evans says he’s finally gaining traction with other lawmakers now that UO has decided the Ducks will fly east.

In recent days he’s heard a wide range of ideas for how the Legislature might respond — from attempting to claim a piece of UO’s buoyed television rights revenue to share with other state universities, to setting aside public funds that help ensure the Beavers and Ducks can still meet for an annual football game.

“I think there’s going to be a whole lot of talk in the Legislature,” he said. “I’ll take their help, regardless of party.”

One lawmaker with a unique perspective on the conference shakeup is state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas.

Bynum’s son, Ellis, is a running back on the UO football team. She has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, one of the Big Ten schools the Ducks will be playing more frequently in coming years.

There’s a lot that’s exciting about the move, Bynum said Friday, but she finds herself worrying about student-athletes in Corvallis and Eugene.

“This has been something that has kept me up at night over the past week,” she said. “I reached out to OSU to let them know I was concerned about the students. I don’t know what the full landscape is, but I wanted to offer some support as they try to navigate it.”

Like her colleagues, Bynum isn’t sure what options lawmakers might pursue. She said she’ll work to “convene a meeting of the minds sooner rather than later.”

In the meantime, OSU is exhibiting optimism and implying it will soon be recruiting other Western universities to rebuild the historic conference. “We continue to believe that preserving the Pac-12 is in the best interests of OSU student-athletes and the remaining universities,” university President Jayathi Murthy said in a letter to OSU staff and students Friday. “We are doing everything in our control to stabilize and rebuild the conference.”

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.