One on one with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren

Photo courtesy of Kevin Warren

The art of making tough decisions

The Power Five conferences—Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—are college sport’s movers and shakers. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren is the first Black commissioner among the longstanding quintet.

Warren, hired in the summer of 2019, started his first full calendar year as Big Ten leader on an ambitious itinerary and agenda to visit each of the 14 member schools, attend events for every conference sport, and conduct town hall meetings on each campus. He was in Minnesota last February.

Then, a month later, Warren was confronted with three unexpected interruptions to his plans:  the coronavirus pandemic that shut down sports for most of the year; the killing of George Floyd in May, which induced a nationwide wave of protests and racial awakening; and the decision to postpone the 2020 football season, then deciding to hold an abbreviated season, which sparked criticism from fans, coaches, media and others.

Warren took the brunt of such criticism. Some believe that the criticism might not have been so harsh had he not been Black. 

“The chancellors and presidents voted [initially to suspend football, then to restart it], but I supported it,” he recalled in a recent MSR interview. “I feel as strongly today as I did then that I made the right decision. People matter to me and always will matter. We did the right thing.”

Criticism often comes as part of the job for any top executive of any organization, especially one such as the Big Ten. The MSR asked Warren if he felt some of the criticism that came his way last year was racially motivated.

“Growing up as a Black man in America,” he responded, “we have a different viewpoint about how the world operates. It’s nothing personal—bad, good, indifferent, it just is. 

“I really don’t take things personal,” said Warren. “I know when I got hired in this job it had a historical significance to it. There’s a certain kind of pressure, a certain kind of judgment, a certain kind of criticism—sometimes warranted, sometimes unwarranted—that comes along with these roles. I understood that walking in the door, and I understood it will be that way the entire time [as commissioner].”

It wasn’t any different during his days with the Minnesota Vikings, where Warren was the highest ranking Black executive working on the business side for a team and the first Black COO in NFL history. He was instrumental in negotiating virtually every phase of building a new downtown stadium, which became the largest constructed project in the state of Minnesota.

“There were people who thought building US Bank Stadium as the greatest thing ever, and there were people who said we should never done it or receive any type of governmental funding,” Warren recalled.

Warren also says his parents prepared him and his siblings for dealing with criticism. “They never let us use the word ‘fair,’” he said proudly. “I learned very early to take the word out of my vocabulary.”

Throughout his years in sports, Warren has been seen as a thoughtful leader who is both methodical and collaborative in his decision making. He started the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet in December 2019 that includes representatives from all 14 institutions.

Last year he created the conference’s 229-member Equality Coalition that came into full focus after Floyd’s murder. The group developed programming and initiatives to help address many social justice and racial issues. The UNITED AS ONE social justice campaign was kicked off during the football season, and it also led a voter registration initiative.

“We put our student-athletes at the center of our decisions,” declared Warren. “Playing college sports is complicated. When we were dealing with the [pandemic] challenges…there was not a person who was living on Planet Earth who had ever dealt with it before.

“It’s always easy now to turn around and for someone to say what you should have done. I always [say] that at that point in time [we] made the right decision with the right information at the right time based on all of the facts.”

The Big Ten commissioner, now in his second full year, quickly pointed out that his first year was at the least unforgettable. “It probably has taken me seven years to learn what I learned last year. It was not easy, but I learned a lot about people, a lot about process, and also about myself.  I learned the importance of making sure you have alignment with your constituents.”

Even before Floyd and other police killings of Blacks, Warren wanted social justice to be a main part of the conference’s overall mission. “It was part of my judgement as part of my preparation of taking the job,” he noted, “that I know I wanted to do something from a social justice standpoint.

“After the death of George Floyd, we started the anti-racism coalition that morphed into the Equality Coalition. That [was] something we had planned even going back to my interview for the job in 2019.”

College sport historically has been slow to change in moving forward diversity and inclusion, especially in leadership positions. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport in January gave college sport a D-plus overall grade for its underrepresentation of Blacks, People of Color and women in campus leadership roles in its 2020 College Racial and Gender Report Card.

“We just need to make it a priority,” said Warren. “Diversity is not only the right thing to do, but it makes sense…whether it’s sports, business, higher education or politics, that we recognize diversity and inclusion.”

COVID-19 just adds to the list of issues that confront college sports. “I think the challenges that we will have in the foreseeable future in college athletics will continue to be the health and safety of our student-athletes,” said Warren. “How do we navigate COVID-19 and any other pandemic-related issues that arise? There are a lot of items we have to deal with.

“Some of the decisions we will be making in the next two to four years will impact college athletes in the next 50 years,” he predicts.

 “I am grateful to God…because what we went through last year, it allowed me” to grow as a conference leader, stressed Warren.

“It was one of the greatest years I ever had. It was challenging, but I think what it did was showed me the goodness of people. It revealed certain challenges that we have, but the best thing it did [was show] that when people pull together we are creative, that we need to make sure we think out of the box.

“I’m very thankful and purposeful in this decision-making process,” said Warren. “This is a platform, a movement that I can make a difference in the lives of student-athletes or in college athletics. This is something I didn’t enter into lightly.

“It is not a job for me—it is an honor to be here, and an honor to serve,” he said. “I don’t worry about next week or five years from now. I just want to focus on doing the right thing today, and making the right decisions today.”