KEVIN WARREN: Good afternoon, it really is a pleasure to be here today; and the Iowa adage of win, graduate and do it right, you hear about those things, and although I’ve been here on campus before, but when you come here and see it firsthand, it just reiterates the possibilities, the positivity and the future of intercollegiate athletics. I mean one of the things that has really resonated with me today is leadership and continuity. What President Bruce Harreld and Gary Barta, what you all have done here together — and I mean that — together, and with the longevity of some of your coaches. It’s one thing to have longevity, and it’s another thing to have longevity, collegiality, but also just the consistency of the way to do things. I had a chance to see Coach Ferentz earlier today, and then Coach McCaffery here today, and have a special relationship with Coach McCaffery because he was a senior and I was a freshman on the University of Pennsylvania basketball team back in the early 1980s, and that’s when I really learned to understand what it meant to be a student-athlete; to work hard, to set goals, dream big, to pull together, to sweat together, to really cheer for each other. And one thing about Fran, I know he’s very, very passionate. He’s a hard worker, but I could tell even then that he was going to be a coach, because for a young black kid from Phoenix, Arizona, to go across the country — I didn’t know I was younger than most people. I was only 17. I called my parents one day and said, I’m here as a freshman at 17 and most of my classmates are 18 and 19, how did that happen? And my mom said, ‘you drove us crazy, so we just put you at school earlier than you should have been.’ But to have Fran, who was really mature, and he was a point guard both on and off the court. And I say sincerely, I learned more about basketball from him than any other coach who I’d previously had, and he took time and energy and effort to mentor me and I will be forever grateful for that, Fran.
It’s a pleasure to be here today. It’s a pleasure to tour the campus to meet so many people. My day started early with a great workout in the facility. My legs are a little wobbly right now. They put me on the bike and got some good cardio and weights in. And I think the biggest thing for me as the new commissioner of the Big Ten is to make sure that I remember why I took — I call this a movement and not a job — why I took an opportunity to lead a movement. And that really is because of the opportunity that we have for our student-athletes. And I say this sincerely. I did it this morning, I did it last night, and I’ll do it again tonight. I start every day on my knees in prayer for my family and the Big Ten Conference and loved ones, but also for the 10,000 student-athletes that I represent on a daily basis. And I’ve always been a firm believer, if we keep our student-athletes at the epicenter of all our decisions, and we have some complicated decisions coming up over the next couple of years, we will make the right decision. And to have a chance to spend time with them today, to understand their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their desires, their aspirations, it really is special, and it reaffirms that young people in today’s society, they’re special. They really are. They’re hard working. They want all the great things in life that we want for our own children, an opportunity to get a good education, in a safe environment, an opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics, an opportunity to have support and to know that we as adults are behind them, that we’ll be tough on them, we’ll be demanding, but that we understand that this world is a better place to have them in a good place in their life.
And that’s one of the reasons why a couple of my platforms that I’ve made it very clear, and you’ve heard me probably talk about it before, the things that are important to me, one of which is mental health and wellness, but the first thing above everything is making sure we educate, empower, encourage our student-athletes not to be good, but to be exceptional. And under that, for us to do it, we need to make sure that they’re healthy from a mental health and wellness standpoint, that we have financial literacy training for them, we teach them how to register to vote, we challenge them to be holistic citizens, not only while they are in our conference, but also prepare them for life after intercollegiate athletics. And that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be smooth, everything’s going to be happy, everything’s going to be easy. And I think all of us, as we look back over the course of our life, it’s during those times that we went through tough times that we became better by it and became better for it.
And even though when we face tough times, I just want to make sure we have an environment here that we can help encourage our student-athletes to persevere and to be tough themselves.
That’s one of the first things I want to focus on, the education, empowerment and encouragement of our student-athletes.
The second area is to make sure that we really continually capture the hearts and the minds of all of our fans. We live in a complex world. There are only a limited amount of dollars, and that’s why I’m very interested in making sure we have the best facilities, the best resources and the best game day experience to make sure that we get our fans to come and watch all of our Big Ten sports.
And the third area is that we remain a viable conference from a financial standpoint. So a lot of things we do we can accomplish with heart, with passion, with desire, but we also need to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible and that we do have financial resources to make sure that we can have the programs necessary to take care of our student-athletes.
And then the last area is to make sure that we build bridges for our constituents. We’re fortunate to be where we are in the country. Our conference is contiguous; the states are contiguous. We go from Nebraska to New Jersey. We have 166 fortune 500 companies in our Big Ten DNA. And so one of the things that I’m trying to do is to make sure that I spend my time, my energy and effort in helping this conference to continually prosper.
It’s not lost upon me as I stand here before you today that our conference started in 1896, and there’s only been five other men since 1896 who have held the job of commissioner in the Big Ten Conference. And so I actually have their framed pictures on the wall in my office. And they are the first pictures that I see when I walk in in the morning. And to be able to look up and see those five men, John Griffith and Tug Wilson and William Reed and Wayne Duke and Jim Delany and to sit there and think that since 1896 there’s been only five people that have held this office. So I don’t take it lightly. I don’t take it lightly that I’m the first African-American to lead one of these A5 conferences.
So I’m always looking for opportunities to make sure that I do everything that I possibly can to build bridges, to build relationships, and hopefully one day the people will look at me in this position not as a person of color, but as a person who was given an opportunity to work hard, to build the conference and to be a leader. And that’s one of the reasons I know many people have told me that I was a little off center when I said it, is that I was going to conduct 14 town hall meetings, go to all 14 of our campuses. But then I also said that I was going to attend all 350 games for our Big Ten teams. And I’m sticking to it. And I’m on target. I’m actually a little ahead. Because it was important for me not to do this job, especially the first couple years, sitting at my desk in Chicago and in New York, but it was important for me to do this job actually in the community, on our campuses and meeting with our coaches, our administrators, our presidents, our chancellors, and most of all, our student-athletes. And that has been truly a blessing.
And when you sit down and have a chance to talk with our student-athletes and really hear what’s in their heart and what’s in their minds, it just has verified and validated what I thought all along, that we have some wonderful people. We live in the greatest country on the face of the planet. Intercollegiate athletics is spectacular. And we have great coaches. We have some great leaders of our universities and institutions.
There are a lot of smart people in this world and in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that we hold true to the values of what our colleges and universities were built upon, and that is to give people an opportunity to get a world-class education and then compete as a student-athlete.
This is not professional sports. I spent 21 years in professional sports. And nor do I believe that it should be professional sports, that we need to make sure that we hold on firm to our collegiate model to build an environment to make sure that we keep the student-athletes at the epicenter of all of our decisions.
So with that, again, it’s been a pleasure to be here today to become part of your family and to welcome us as part of your family. We have some people here from the Big Ten office, Diane Dietz, who’s been there for many years, and Jessica Palermo and Grace and Adam, who has joined us, and then my wife, Greta, who’s been on this journey, we’ve been on this journey together for 28 years. We’ve been fortunate to have two wonderful kids; our daughter, Peri, was a student-athlete at Occidental in Los Angeles. And she lives in Chicago, not with us, fortunately two miles away, and she runs our family foundation now and does special projects. And then we have our son, Powers, who’s a football student-athlete at Mississippi State University.
So a lot of the things that I believe, a lot of the things that I say, a lot of the things that I do is also based upon raising student-athletes in our home and actually having a son currently right now in an A5 conference where I get a chance to hear not only from him, but also from his other teammates regarding what it really means to be a student-athlete and the ups and downs that they face on a daily basis.
So with that, again, thank you for the hospitality. Thank you for everything that you’ve done, and I’ll be more than happy to take some questions.
Q. The thoughts on amateurism, what is the student-athletes’ reaction to that? I’m sure there’s probably a mixed reaction.
KEVIN WARREN: I think what it is by and large what you’ll find out is student-athletes, are they focused on themselves, are they focused on their teammates, are they focused on their institutions, yes. What you’ll find out, too, is that student-athletes are also concerned to make sure that amateurism does remain in place and that they’re allowed to be amateurs and enjoy the journey. And they’re also concerned with — some of our student-athletes who are in the revenue-generating sports, that some decisions that are made, hopefully that they won’t negatively impact individuals in some of our Olympic sports.
And, again, I look at my son, I mean, so it’s not only him being concerned what it means to be a college football player, but what it means to be a college football player and how that impacts the women’s soccer team also.
The conversations I’ve had with them, they really have embraced their station in life and where they are in their station in life and I think they are seeking for us to provide them with an opportunity to remain a student-athlete. And for that few select group who get a chance to play professionally, whether here in the States or abroad, soon enough that time will come.
Q. Where do you stand on name, image and likeness and whether or not student-athletes can profit off of it?
KEVIN WARREN: One good thing about it, I think today is I think today is my 47th day formally on the job. I spent a lot of time before I arrived in this job. I spent a lot of time on a daily basis thinking through those issues, and I think where we are from an intercollegiate standpoint is that we need to make sure — and I’m doing it right now, and we’re doing it collectively — that we take a step back and make sure that the student-athlete is put at the epicenter of all of our decisions, and whether it’s name, image and likeness and other decisions. Do I believe the intercollegiate student-athletes should be treated as professionals? No. Do I believe that pay for play should exist? No. But do I believe that we have an opportunity from our current existing model to make sure that we bring into the current day and age and that we take a step back.
You know, so many people are talking about all the negative ramifications or negative issues related to name, image and likeness. What I’ve been spending a lot of time on lately collectively and individually is to figure out ways of this opportunity, what do we have for this opportunity again to provide our student-athletes with a chance to even get better and to educate, you know, educate themselves in this whole collegiate environment. We definitely need to put our heads together and figure out what works best, what can we do from a collective standpoint, and also from a creative standpoint.
There are so many things that we provide here on colleges and universities. For instance, in the Big Ten, and many may know this, many may not, but once you come on as a student-athlete in the Big Ten, you have basically a lifetime right to come back and get your college education. And those are the kind of things we need to talk about. I’m excited where we are. I know that time is ticking, but we’re in a stage right now where we’re working through all of these issues. But one of the things I’m spending my time on is not a quick fix. So many people have said, well, just pay them money or whatever the case may be. Payment of money creates all kind of different issues that we need to make sure we talk about: Are agents involved, are they not, are they taxed, are they not; if they’re paid too much, does it impact their Pell grant? What happens from a trademark standpoint? All of these are the answers I’m working on literally on a daily basis, and I feel very confident about them. I’m looking at this much more broader than the whole, image and likeness issue that we’re working through. I’m looking at it from a holistic standpoint of what can we do to create a system where everyone feels comfortable where we are, where we’re going, what can we do, what can we do to use this as a time to make sure that we pull our various communities together.
I’ve challenged people within the Big Ten. I’ve challenged other people within college sports. I want to get to the point where we can discuss all of those things that we talk around our dinner tables that we haven’t been able to discuss before.
For instance, what are the gender issues that impact name, image and likeness? What are the race issues that impact name image and likeness. What do we provide to our student-athletes on a daily basis right now? What can we do better? What shouldn’t we do better? But we’re at the point right now where we definitely need to make sure that we become active in this area, to be creative in this area, and to make sure that we do things that not only fix this issue from a short-term standpoint, but fix it from a long-term standpoint.
So, again, I’m going in this very prayerfully, very thoughtfully, and I ask for wisdom, I ask for guidance, and I’m very confident that because we do have the best interest of our student-athletes in our central heart, is that we will come up with a mechanism that will be able to move the direction in intercollegiate athletics the way that it should have been moved. But we are where we are right now. And I’m very excited that I’m here at this point in time. And I feel very confident with individuals like President Harreld, Gary Barta, other people from the A5 conferences and college athletics that we will come up with ways for us to do what is right. And in my heart the question and the issue that I always ask myself, is this fair. And I think fairness, it should be our focus, and to make sure we create an environment of intercollegiate athletics that is predicated and based upon fairness.
Q. Federal government’s role in all of this?
KEVIN WARREN: I envision that the Big Ten will take a leadership role in this. We’re uniquely situated. And, again, when you look at the number of student-athletes, first of all, as I talked about that, we have is a very interesting number. The number of sports that we have. The Big Ten has an interesting combination of both academics and athletics, and if you look at the history of certain decisions that have been made in the Big Ten and in college athletics, the Big Ten has always been on the cutting edge, whether it was a TV network, whether it was issues involving diversity and inclusion. But it’s been important for us to take that role.
And I can speak for me personally, and I think that’s one of the reasons why — whether it was spiritual synchronicity for me to have an opportunity to lead this conference, is because my voice is needed at this time to be able to articulate what really is important. So for Kevin Warren personally and for the Big Ten, I look for us to take a leadership role on this issue to make sure, as I said, I’m going to challenge everyone who’s involved with me on this, let’s talk about the sensitive issues, the issues we’ve been talking about probably for the last five or ten years but we haven’t had a lot of movement on. But the time now has come, the circumstances have forced us to be around the table. And instead of looking at something that’s negative, I think one thing I would ask people to do is look at this as a positive opportunity for us to really do what is right, do what is fair and create an environment where our student-athletes remain and are put at the center of all of our decisions. And I think if we come up with a format, a methodology that treats all of our student-athletes the same way, that if we had a son or daughter in that position and we always keep their best interest in mind from a mental health and wellness, from a spiritual and financial and physical wellness, we’ll make the right decisions, and I’m very confident that we’ll work through all of these issues.
So instead of me being negative and really concerned about it, I’m positive and excited about figuring out a way to make sure that we come together as a country, as a community, to make sure we make the right decisions, because one thing that’s special about it, people love college sports, and that’s the benefit that we have about this. But we need to make sure that we keep it as college sports and that — and we also cannot make certain decisions based upon, you know, one percent of the people. So I’m aware as far as, you know, certain issues that exist. But, again, the good thing that we have going for us is that people love college sports, and as you talk to our student-athletes, they love being in college sports. And it is a meritocracy; if you’re good enough now, you will have an opportunity to play professional at the appropriate time.
Q. What’s your view on the one-time transfer rule?
KEVIN WARREN: I spoke about that yesterday. I’ve been a big believer in supporting it, and I think that’s one of the reasons I was excited when I came to the Big Ten last summer to see that they had started talking about legislation about the one-time transfer rule, and I’m glad to see that we’ve gone forward with that. And I’m pleased to see that the ACC came out and supported that.
But as I mentioned to someone earlier today, I transferred. I transferred from the University of Pennsylvania. So when you transfer, it doesn’t mean that your life is over. And so many times — you know, we have to give young people our love and support. And so many times people make decisions to go to schools for various reasons, and sometimes those decisions change. There may be a family situation. It may be a coach change situation. It may be an academic situation. But I’m a big believer that student-athletes should have an opportunity, one time, without any excuses, to be able to say I want to transfer.
Now, once you use that, then if you want to do it again, then you need to make sure that you do sit out. But one of the things that really bothered me is when I started reading some of the stories, and also hearing from parents — and, again, being in the NFL for 21 years and being at the Vikings for 15 years before I came here, a lot of parents in college athletics would call me for advice, and without fail, on multiple occasions it seemed like that whatever — how much more they could tweak their story to make it more compassionate, even though it may have not been totally true, is that they felt that was the road that they needed to go down to be able to get a waiver to transfer.
And even then, before I knew that I was coming to work at the Big Ten, I just said if I ever worked in college sports, that would be something that we would need to change. And the other thing that concerned me, the lawyer in me started to concern me of all the personal issues that people had to share to get a waiver. You’d have to go into personal issues, maybe if your mother was ill or your father was ill or if you were ill or if you were having mental health and wellness issues. I’m always very protective of people’s personal information. And so I’m a big believer that every individual, every student-athlete should have an opportunity on a one-time basis to make sure that they are allowed to transfer. And I know we will have to deal with people who enroll early, all those different things, but I think that’s — back to fairness, what’s fair. I think that’s the fair and equitable thing to do, and I’m behind it 100 percent.
Q. You mentioned mental health as your number one platform. I think that’s interesting. And you see the Big Ten, I don’t know if they’re forcing schools, but just engaging schools on that level, making sure that everything. When I talked to the players here about it, everyone enjoys and everyone gets a lot out of it. Feels like the Big Ten is kind of waking up to that, to the mental health thing. Do you see the BIG TEN maybe engaging in some formal —
KEVIN WARREN: Yeah, one of the things I’ve spent multiple hours since I’ve been here since January 2nd working on this, to come up with the most comprehensive holistic mental health and wellness platform ever in the history of college sports. We’re just trying to create this. And this goes back — most — I would say almost all of the decisions that I make, all of my approach to certain issues, what is the transfer rule or mental health and wellness go back to experiences. I was in a horrific car wreck at age 11, should have lost my life, didn’t. Spent time in traction, spent time in a body cast. And it was interesting, I had a long conversation with one of my older sisters recently who stayed in the hospital with me for weeks, and she said that I would go through fits of terror that at night that I would absolutely scream and cry and make noises so badly, they actually went to the doctor and said what’s wrong with Kevin. And the doctor told them that during the day he can mask his emotions and feelings, but at nighttime his true pain comes out. And I thought about it, out all of the medical personnel I went through, all the surgeries that I had, being in traction, a body cast, not one time, not one time did I meet with a counselor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist to ask me how I was doing.
Now, as you get older, you can rewire your brain, you figure it out and work through it. And so I understand all the complexities. And one of the things, I look at this — this is even more beyond mental health and wellness. I look at this as an opportunity for the Big Ten and intercollegiate athletics for us to save lives. We have people on our campus right now who are struggling. Right now I guarantee you there are people on campuses in our Big Ten institutions who are struggling with mental health and wellness. Some of them have contemplated suicide. Some of them have made poor choices to mask their feelings. And I just want to make sure that all of our student-athletes — back to me saying at the top of this that we put our student-athletes at the epicenter of all our decisions, if that were our son or daughter or our grandson or granddaughter, what would be the right thing for us to do. And I just want to make sure that we make those decisions so I’m working very hard with my internal team and some external members to come up with a platform, so if anyone — now, in a perfect world, you know, the world according to Kevin Warren, I would love if every one of our 10,000 student-athletes had their own personal mental health advisor. That’s probably not feasible. So we’re looking at various ways. Some of it may be from a tele doc standpoint. But what I don’t want to hear and what alarms me is when I hear stories of a student-athlete going for help and they’re told that we can take you in 30 days from now, that’s what we can’t have. We have too many resources, we have too many smart people. We have too many great institutions. And so this is something I’m going to really push the envelope on, because those are the kind of things at the end of the day — when people are struggling to figure out this name, image and likeness, at the end of the day what we need to do is make sure we’re creating an environment for our student-athlete to be taken care of the same way we would do if they were a family member of ours.
Q. How do you define amateurism and has that evolved since the time you were a player?
KEVIN WARREN: Evolved since was a time as a player because I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. When I went to college, my whole goal was to go to college because I was a competitor, I loved sports, but to go there to get an education and to have an opportunity to play college basketball. That was my goal. And people who played with me will tell you I worked very hard, I trained very hard, but I did not have aspirations, because I’m a realist, to play professional basketball. So I had aspirations to get a great education, and again, have a great college experience and go on to get an MBA and go on to get a law degree and go on and have a normal life. So have the dynamics changed? Yes. Television has changed this. Sponsorship opportunities, ticket prices, the revenues, the training of our student-athlete, the commitment of our student-athlete. Yeah, all of those different things have changed, but one of the things I’ve also said is to make sure that — I’m a big believer that the complexity of the issues and the complexity of the environment should not be the rationale for us not to seek the saw mill. And so have things changed? Yes, but it’s just like as the National Basketball Association or the NHL or Major League Baseball or NFL, have those changed? Yes. That’s kind of what life is right now from a change standpoint, but at the end of the day the core tenets, that if you go back to 1896 when that group of presidents got together to say let’s start this conference, the Big Ten, those same core tenets are the same is to provide individuals an opportunity to get a world-class education and also participate in intercollegiate athletics governed by certain rules of fair play, equity and inclusion. And those have changed the same.
I think that’s why this is a great time for us to be together is that we have an opportunity to redefine maybe the rules, the rules of engagement, the rules of operation. And what’s so exciting about that, our decisions that we’re going to make here that we’ve already started to make will impact the game of intercollegiate athletics for the next 50 to 100 years.
Q. College football playoffs, there seems to be a competitive imbalance between certain leagues. Certain leagues have eight games, some teams have nine like the BIG TEN, and has somewhat altered the participation in the Final Four playoffs. Do you anticipate any discussion about altering the league schedule to go back to an eight-game schedule or potentially changing or eliminating divisional play?
KEVIN WARREN: That’s something that has come up a lot. I’m a big believer, I’m very comfortable with the nine-game schedule in football right now in our conference. And the reason why is that, one thing about it, we have very tough, physical teams who have done well during the season, who have done well in the playoffs, and I’m also one of those people that don’t make determinations based upon four to five to six years of a snapshot, because whether that’s the stock market or businesses, if you take a snapshot of a five- or six-year period, sometimes those results in that period can mislead you. I’m very comfortable, one, with our coaches, with our training methods, with the type of student-athletes that come to the Big Ten Conference, we have a special group of people, I’m comfortable with a nine-game schedule. And I think when we take a broader look, over a 20-year period, we’ll be satisfied with the number of national championships that we’ll win, the number of bowls that we’ll win, the number of student-athletes that we graduate. So I look at this from a holistic standpoint. So where we are right now, I’m comfortable with the nine-game schedule. I’m proud of all of our teams.
If you look at this year, we had competitive football all the way to the end. I think next year is even going to be better. So unless something changes drastically, I think we’re structured in a manner that’s not only good for current success, but also that’s even better for long-term success.
Q. What’s your views on playing football games on Friday nights? Do you have a concern —
KEVIN WARREN: Again, I’m a traditionalist. And Friday nights are an interesting concept. I know we do that here in the Big Ten. I know there’s been a lot of people who have been upset from a high school football standpoint. I’m comfortable with the way we have it structured, because I believe this year I think we only have two games that are structured on Friday night football. And it’s on some of those nights that are done that may not have an overly negative impact with high school football. But at the end of the day I’m a big believer that high school football should take place Friday night, and occasional games like we’re doing it here, two games in the Big Ten on Friday nights. I think what it does, it even adds the value, and that’s something in our conference office we’re focused on our games on Friday nights for us to do it in a matter that will add and promote overall football. So I’m comfortable with it. I would not be comfortable if we had Friday night football games throughout the season.
Q. Are you interested in changing the model for officiating? I know that everybody’s always done it this way. Is there a better way to do officiating?
KEVIN WARREN: I think, back to certain other issues. Here’s my theory on officiating, is the thing that concerns me, and for whatever reason has caused it, is that we’re moving officiating from officiating to perfection. And I think the moment you try to officiate any type of sporting event with humans participating who are big, fast, strong, you’re not going to reach perfection. And I’ve said that about instant replay. Instant replay should be for those certain plays, but it should not be that every single play that we have to stop a game to do it. So from an officiating standpoint, I am very supportive, comfortable and honored to have Bill Carollo in our league, from a football standpoint, to handle officiating. He and I meet on a weekly basis to talk about a number of issues. What do we feel about instant replay? We’re making investments into newer technology this year. We just did it last week. What do we feel about training? What do feel about even the individuals in instant replay? What do we feel about the diversity issues from an officiating standpoint? And it’s interesting, I was one of those people in high school, although my parents had a couple rules, you better never disrespect a teacher and you better never disrespect an official. So although I was maybe not happy with certain calls, I never said anything. But as I got older and then even as a college player, you know, I was get frustrated with officials. And when I changed my mind on officiating is when I was asked to officiate a couple of our kids’ games, and these are like sixth graders running around, and you know, I’m missing calls, I’m at a wrong angle. I’m thinking like, you know what, this job is harder than you really think. That doesn’t mean that we should cut them total slack because they’re professionals. But I say that to say part of the beauty about intercollegiate athletics is to have another human being involved from an officiating standpoint. And all I ask is that our officials are trained, we provide them with the best equipment, that they’re focused and that they come into each and every game with a heart of fairness. And so long as that happens, will every call go your way? No. But that is what people talk about for years to come, but as far as from the Big Ten standpoint, whether it’s our basketball or football or our other officials, I’m comfortable with where we are, and you have my word that we’ll continually every single year try to train them to even get better.