May 13, 2021

‘We did the right thing’: Pandemic forces complicated, demanding decisions for Big Ten commissioner

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Student athletes and their well-being are at the center of the decisions made by the Big Ten Conference.

“Every day we’re focused on making sure we create an environment to keep our student athletes healthy and safe not only physically, but emotionally, spiritually and mentally,” said Kevin Warren, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference.

“The biggest challenge is we’re doing everything we can on a daily basis, but also keeping a long-term vision in mind,” said Warren during the Issues and Action Steps: A National Forum on Expanding Healthier School Communities event hosted by GENYOUth.

The Big Ten Conference sponsors 28 sports.

“We have nearly 10,000 student athletes, almost 350 head coaches and 1,100 assistant coaches at 14 universities that span across 11 states,” said Warren during the virtual meeting sponsored by Midwest Dairy.

Warren was challenged with making important decisions in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic not long after he began his job as the commissioner on Jan. 2, 2020.

“I have dear friends in the medical profession and they told me after the first of the year to keep an eye on COVID-19 and the impacts it may have on our universities,” he recalled.

As a result, Warren said, the conference formed an emerging infectious disease committee in the middle of February.

“That allowed us as a conference to start to identify issues,” he said. “On March 11 our world came to a halt and that was one of the most complicated, demanding decisions I have ever made in my career.”

At the same time, Warren said, it was one of the easiest decisions.

“I promised everyone in the Big Ten that I would always do the right thing when it came to making sure our student athletes were healthy and safe,” Warren said.

“I think the decisions we made last year afforded us the opportunity to complete our football season and have teams play in bowl games,” he said. “And it set the foundation for basketball, hockey and other sports we’ll manage before the end of the academic year.”

So many times in leadership positions, people try to live in a state of perfection, Warren said.

“I needed to make sure I had grace with myself and others because there was no one who had navigated a global pandemic and try to play college or professional athletics,” he said. “I wish there was a handful of people I could call and ask what they did, but there was no one to call.”

Warren sought the advice of medical personnel about the coronavirus.

“I’m not a doctor and it was very important I remained unemotional,” he said. “Our student athletes have to be at the epicenter of all our decisions and maybe some of the decisions we made were not the most popular, but I feel very confident as a commissioner, father and leader we did the right thing.”

As the country continues to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, Warren said, this is a time for grace.

“It’s a complicated time in our society and our young people are doing the best they can,” he said. “I want to make sure they’re OK because they are our future leaders.”

The commissioner is proud of the young people who have battled through this time period to go to school on Zoom and try to learn.

“As adults and leaders we need to make sure we tell them how much we appreciate them and create an environment that’s healthy and safe for them,” he said.

“We need to love each other and show each other more grace,” he said. “We need to do the things our kindergarten teacher taught us — don’t cut in line, say please and thank you, smile and do the best you can,” Warren said.

“Our young people model us,” he said. “We need to do all we can to make this world a better place.”

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Martha Blum

Field Editor