Pac-12 settles defamation lawsuit from execs fired in Comcast overpayment scandal, who say they told Larry Scott of payments (2024)

There’s another bill for the Pac-12 from Larry Scott’s tenure as commissioner. In January 2023, the conference fired Pac-12 Networks president Mark Shuken and CFO Brent Willman (both Scott hires) over a long-running issue involving Comcast overpaying for the networks, claiming “a failure by those two executives to disclose material information to the Pac-12 Board of Directors and external Pac-12 auditors.” But those executives sued for wrongful termination, breach of contract, and defamation in April 2023, claiming they brought that information to Scott, he was the one who failed to appropriately disclose it to the board and auditors, and their contracts specified they reported only to Scott. And now, the conference has settled that lawsuit:

Settlements have been reached between the Pac-12 and former Pac-12 Networks President Mark Shuken and CFO Brent Willman, sources tell me.

Shuken and Willman sued the Pac-12 alleging unlawful termination, defamation, & breach of contract.

All 12 members share the liability.

— John Canzano (@johncanzanobft) May 30, 2024

Some language still needs to be “ironed out” per a source but the financial part is done.

— John Canzano (@johncanzanobft) May 30, 2024

With defamation being such a significant portion of this case, the Pac-12 settling it suggests they’re not willing to stand by the claims they advanced in January 2023. Specifically, the conference said there that this was Shuken and Willman’s failure to report rather than Scott’s. That was key to why the plaintiffs here sued.

It’s understandable why these plaintiffs sued. If they actually did report the $72 million in Comcast overpayments (which date back to 2012, got really big in 2016, were noticed by these executives in 2017, and were noticed by Comcast in 2022) to the proper authority as specified in their contracts, that’s something notable. And if that authority then did not properly report it to the people they were supposed to, that’s a significant difference for the reputation and future employment prospects of Willman and Shuken versus if the Pac-12’s January 2023 claims on them were accurate and undisputed.

Of course, settlements frequently carry language that they’re not an admission of wrongdoing or an admission of certain facts. And some of that may wind up being the case here (we’ll see what the parties’ public comments on this wind up as). And there certainly can be a calculus for corporations and leagues that paying to settle even claims they disagree with can be more worthwhile than fighting it out in court for years.

And there are some further complications with this lawsuit given the Pac-12’s current status. (It’s about to be just Oregon State and Washington State, but the other former members are equally responsible for past litigation like this and the House v. NCAA student-athlete settlement under a Pac-12 exit settlement.) That may have added to the case to settle. But a settlement alone is at least a partial public opinion victory for Willman and Shuken, which could be upgraded to a major victory if the settlement includes a public recantation of those January 2023 claims.

The other thing here is what this all means for Scott. Perhaps the most-derided commissioner in major NCAA conference history, he left a role as CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association in 2009 to run the Pac-12, and won some initial plaudits for bold moves like the proposed Pac-16, his recognition of the importance of a conference network, and his work oninternational deals. But his execution of that conference network (specifically, a six-regional-feed setup and a Dish-first deal, a combination which was never going to work for DirecTV) was a key part of what went wrong for the Pac-12, leading to the growing revenue gap to the rest of the Power 5 and the eventual exodus that left just Oregon State and Washington State. And his eventual 2021 exit came with much rejoicing, and with his own attempts at revisionism.

The conference network(s) themselves also deserve some examination here, especially as they’re winding their way down (with their final live event earlier this week). Some of the talent and crew may remain to produce games and studio shows for Oregon State and Washington State. And that could be a larger number if their bid to produce games and studio content for others out of their new San Ramon studios gets some takers.

But those studios alone help illustrate another Scott failure. He insisted on housing both the studios and the conference business headquarters in incredibly pricey real estate in San Francisco, a move only undone by successor George Kliavkoff (who had his own media failures). And while the networks undoubtedly hit some innovation milestones, they regularly showed questionable priorities and simply did not have enough top-tier, must-see sports rights to make people demand them at a level that distributors like DirecTV would actually listen to.

Beyond that, there’s a lot to say about Scott. He made more than $50 million for running the conference from 2009-21, and in his last few years was paid much more on a yearly basis than much more successful counterparts like Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Greg Sankey of the SEC. And that’s before discussion of perks like his$7,500-a-night hotel suite in Vegas during the conference basketball tournament, or his $1.86 million interest-free home loan (with $0 repaid as of last week).

But plenty of executives get large payouts and significant bonuses despite poor performance. It’s more rare to see them do so around the kind of alleged failure to report a $72 million overpayment Shuken and Willman claim Scott performed. Of course, there may or may not be any further action from that, especially with so many of the Pac-12 schools going their separate ways, which could lessen the appetite for a public and/or court fight with Scott.

However, if there’s merit to Willman and Shuken’s claims here that this overpayment scandal was a non-report from Scott, not from them, that remains notable regardless of follow-up action. And that’s true even with Scott out of power and the old Pac-12 gone. And it suggests even more problems at the top of the old Pac-12 then were previously known, from a commissioner perhaps not informing his board of a massive accounting error to a board that didn’t keep close enough tabs on its conference leadership.

[John Canzano on X/Twitter]

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Pac-12 settles defamation lawsuit from execs fired in Comcast overpayment scandal, who say they told Larry Scott of payments (2024)


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