New Big Ten commissioner ‘a voice for diversity at every level’

Photo by Charles Hallman Kevin Warren

Conclusion of a two-part column

The Big Ten Conference at one time had the most Black head men’s basketball coaches in the NCAA and was among the first conferences in the nation to have not only Black football players but also Black head football coaches. But it wasn’t even a year ago that the Big Ten had fallen to zero Black MBB head coaches, and today there is only one.

It still has only one Black WBB head coach while the SEC has four. Michigan State hiring Mel Tucker a month ago brings the total of Big Ten Black head football coaches to a grand total of three. 

William C. Rhoden and Richard Lapchick, among others, have historically argued for a better diversity hiring pipeline for all positions, including coaches, from the NCAA down to the individual schools. Eighty NCAA member schools (out of 347 in Division I) signed a non-binding pledge in 2016 to hire more Blacks and other people of color in leadership positions to better reflect the number of student-athletes of color. 

“I also want to make sure that we challenge our institutions to always create a diversity pool to look from,” Kevin Warren said. Warren is the first Black commissioner of a Power 5 league, named Big Ten commissioner last fall.

“I don’t take it lightly that I’m the first African American to lead one of these conferences,” Warren said during a visit to Iowa in February. He was formerly the NFL’s highest-ranking Black executive during his time with the Minnesota Vikings.

We seized the opportunity to ask him about these disparities during his near half-hour press conference at Minnesota’s Williams Arena earlier this month, now that he is in charge of diversity and inclusion. His response was atypical of those we receive whenever people in charge are asked about diversity, a non-concern for PWM (primarily White media). 

“I want to make sure that we provide every single person regardless of your race, your color, your gender, and your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation… I want the Big Ten office to be a place where we provide people with opportunities to be great. I don’t look toward the negativity associated with this, but I look more for the opportunity,” Warren stated.

The Big Ten offices are based in suburban Chicago. There have been a handful of Blacks in top league office positions, including Andrea Williams, the Big Ten’s first Black female associate commissioner for 10 of her 16 years there before she became the Big Sky commissioner. She is now College Football Playoff chief operating officer.

Each Power 5 conference has at least two Black athletic directors. There were only six total in 2017, and in 2018 there were more women ADs (68) than Blacks.

“I won’t tell anyone who they should hire,” Warren continued, “but I will say that we are the Big Ten and we need to make sure that we have the platform to do things differently. Differently meaning to make sure that we have diverse individuals who have an opportunity to interview for jobs.

“I’m proud of the Big Ten Conference and the history that we have had in the promotion of people of color, but also in the promotion of women,” Warren said. He pledged “that we get the best possible people at every level—people of color, White individuals, males, females. A diverse environment is the smart thing to do.”

The subject of diversity and inclusion, an elephant-in-the-room issue, is too important to ignore or gloss over. “I am very proud of where we stand in the Big Ten Conference” in its diversity efforts, Warren said.

“I will definitely make sure that we be a voice for diversity and inclusion at every level. I’m glad I am in the position to make sure that we continue to improve it.”