Big Ten’s no-play decision sparks outrage

Kevin Warren
MSR file Kevin Warren

First Black commissioner left holding the proverbial bag

News Analysis

In early August, Big Ten presidents voted 11-3 to postpone fall sports, including football, until spring 2021 because of COVID-19 concerns. Since then, Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren, who in essence is the “messenger,” has been the target of unwarranted and sometimes vicious criticism, particularly from those who think football should be played in the Big Ten this fall COVID or no.

While Warren has had to weather the criticism, including harsh judgments on his competence as a commissioner, most school presidents have remained strangely silent and out of sight, or have offered stumbling public statements whether they voted or not, leaving him holding the proverbial bag.

“We didn’t vote per se,” University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said initially. She later backtracked and admitted, “I joined Big Ten presidents in voting to postpone college football and all other fall sports.”

Ten elected officials from six Big Ten states, including Minnesota, last week sent a letter to Warren demanding he reverse his decision. This came after the White House called on him to do the same. This came after scores of players’ parents virtually stormed the Big Ten offices in suburban Chicago last month demanding that Warren let their man-children football players play, virus be damned. 

This came after reportedly over 280,000 folk signed a petition by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in support of playing football, and his coach, Ryan Day, started a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #FIGHT to play on Saturdays this fall.

Certain key facts, however, have been largely ignored and underreported by PWM (primarily White media):

COVID spreading on campuses

First, the coronavirus has taken an average of a thousand American lives a day. Many college campuses of late have been virus hotspots for COVID positive cases—over 81,000 cases at colleges since late July, and more than 61,000 cases since late August. It could be higher since there is no national tracking system, and some schools are slow or not reporting positive cases.

USA Today reported four counties with ACC teams and five with Big 12 teams had double-digit increases in COVID cases last week; 38 Louisiana Tech football players have tested positive, which forced postponing their scheduled game last weekend. Seven big-time football schools are located in counties in which new cases increased 143% (Florida State, Leon County) and 59% (Clemson, Pickens-Anderson County) last week.  

The four largest percentage increases in infection rates last week were in counties with Big Ten schools—Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State—with Champaign County (Ill.) the highest (217% or nearly 80 cases per 100,000 residents). County health officials last week strongly warned that all Michigan State students self-quarantine for 14 days after nearly 350 reported cases since classes began in August.

Minnesota is the lowest with 12 positive cases (minus 20%).  

Other conferences acted first

Second, four college conferences, including the Ivy League in July, either announced cancellation or postponement of fall sports because of COVID at least a month before the Big Ten acted similarly. The Pac-12 also postponed fall sports, but the other three Power 5 leagues—the ACC, SEC and Big 12—did not. 

Heart disease a threat

Third, among his reasons for postponing fall sports, Warren cited concern over myocarditis, a heart inflammation disease usually caused by a viral infection such as COVID-19. There has been a spike in positive cases and subsequent deaths among several Big Ten states.

Student health a priority

Fourth, since taking over, Warren has stressed student-athletes’ health, wellness and safety as his top priority. In December 2019 he established the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet made up of representatives from all 14 conference schools.      

Warren’s priority is clearly the safety and welfare of the student athletes, a perspective one would think would garner praise rather than a hailstorm of criticism and second guessing. 

Amidst all this is a racial undertone for the outrage directed toward Warren, the first Black commissioner of a Power 5 conference in his first year on the job after nearly 15 years with the Minnesota Vikings, where he was the COO, the league’s highest ranking Black executive. He succeeded Jim Delany, who retired after 30 years.

Delany during his reign was a powerful voice in college sport, recalled former University of Minnesota athletic administrator Karen Weaver. “Jim Delany ran that office and that conference,” she pointed out. “Presidents trusted him [and] developed enough confidence in him over many decades.”

It’s a safe bet that if Delany said no football, everyone would be in lock step behind him. But Warren, as a novice in college sport, doesn’t thus far have the same cache as his predecessor. 

“The Big Ten is a mecca for football,” said retired Fritz Pollard Alliance chair John Wooten in a 2019 article for The Undefeated. “You have to understand the importance of football, how football drives everything, and what it means now that this will be Kevin’s new job.”

“He’s great at building coalitions, but when you build coalitions, it takes time,” added Weaver, now an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania graduate school.

The MSR reached out again to the Big Ten for comment from Warren after a spokesperson last month “respectfully declined” an earlier request. This time we received a joint statement by Gabel and Gopher AD Mark Coyle, first released on August 11: “The medical evidence and expert perspectives presented to us as conference leaders raise serious concerns about the safety of playing fall sports.”

The pressure to play unfortunately has become political as well. State legislators are writing letters and the White House is making shakedown phone calls to Warren, bullying him to reverse his decision, all under the guise of returning to normal. Some foolishly suggest that playing football provides an invisible shield for the players while their respective campuses are afire with an undefeated virus.

“People are so anxious” for football, said Weaver of the pressure. She supports Warren and the Big Ten presidents’ decision. 

The Big Ten medical subcommittee reportedly met last weekend with conference leaders, and the school presidents and chancellors could meet as soon as this week to re-vote on returning fall sports sometime this fall. If fall sports do return, it won’t happen earlier than late October. 

Shutting down college football for safety’s sake would seem a no-brainer as a deadly virus runs rampant. Historians perhaps may look back and see that Warren, a Black man, was right as Big Ten leader to postpone fall sports until it was safe, standing up for young people at a time of uncertainty, and recognize his decision as bold and necessary.

Right now, however, he’s catching all the heat while school presidents hide in the shadowy shade.