Kevin Warren, the Big Ten’s new commissioner, isn’t ready to say what he thinks about the most important issue facing revenue-generating college sports: the lack of athletes’ compensation.
That’s OK for now. The announcement of his hiring said plenty.
When Warren takes Jim Delany’s spot in January, he’ll be the first African-American to lead a Power 5 conference. This is no small thing, and Warren certainly feels it.
“It is definitely not lost on me, the history associated with this,” he said during his introductory news conference Tuesday in Rosemont, Illinois.
Warren said he kept photos of Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1966 Texas Western basketball team in his office where he served as the Minnesota Vikings’ chief operating officer. The photos helped remind him of those that made his existence possible.
By taking the top job in the oldest and richest college conference, he’ll have the opportunity to help open doors for others, too. That it took this long for a Power 5 conference to hire a black man to lead is shameful. But at least it finally happened.
And that’s a start.
Sports used a Petri dish: Warren is convinced sports can be used as a kind of Petri dish, as a place in our culture where theories can be sorted out and models of change can be fashioned.
Here is what Warren told the Sports Business Journal earlier this year:
“Sport is bigger than sport,” he said. “This is a powerful platform, as it allows us to be change agents in politics, education, race relations – when done correctly. We need to be very thoughtful and use sports to propel positivity in our society, empower young people and be inclusive. Diversity and inclusion in sports is critical. How do we make the staffs of sports organizations look more like America?”
Whatever else you think of Delany’s reign as the Big Ten’s leader the last three decades – the conference expansion, the creation of the Big Ten Network – he was, by race and gender, a member of the status quo.
And no matter how innovative he was or may have wanted to be, he wasn’t going to affect change the way Warren now can.
Too few people of color in big-time college jobs: Even now, there are still too few people of color running athletic departments, coaching big-time basketball and football programs. When Juwan Howard was hired to replace John Beilein at U-M last week, he became the first black coach to lead a basketball team in the Big Ten since Tubby Smith left Minnesota six years ago.
In a sport whose players are majority black.
Not only does this speak to a lack of equal opportunity, to inequities in education and childhood resources, to an entrenched old boys’ club that dominated the upper echelon of college athletics for decades, but it speaks to how hard it has been to change.
This is partly what makes Warren’s hire so important. Because running a high-powered athletic conference can’t just be about expanding and making money.
The conference is made up of universities, after all. Places that are supposed to remind us what’s possible and remind us what’s fair. Thankfully, the presidents and chancellors who make up the Big Ten finally did that.
Warren is right. Sports must represent America, not reflect what some think it should be.
Building on Delany's legacy: Now, what kind of commissioner will Warren become?
I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows just yet, either.
But you can bet based on his long tenure as the top executive with the Vikings that he will communicate, organize and lead.
He said during his news conference that he doesn’t want to blow up Delany’s legacy, that he wants to build on it. Bring new ideas. His own ideas.
Diversity and inclusion will be among them.
As for the question of supporting an expanded College Football Playoff and whether athletes should be compensated? He deserves time to gather his thoughts.
Question of compensation for players: Here’s hoping, though, that on the question of compensation, he veers from the ideology of his predecessor. For as critical and diversity and inclusion are, a model based on free labor undermines those ideals.
And before you point to the scholarships athletes are awarded, remember that the cost of those scholarships is pennies to the dollar compared to the revenue basketball and football create.
At the very least, college athletes should have the right to earn based on their likeness, to sign a shoe deal or sign autographs at a local car dealership. Ideas that Warren will eventually have to consider.
In the meantime, celebrate Warren's presence as the Big Ten’s next leader, and the ripple effects of what his success could mean. As he said, sports are more than sports. His hiring reminds us of that.