Listening to the 7-month-old in the bouncer seat babbling to himself at a friend’s house, I turned to his father in hopes of decoding what was going on inside that little head.
The dad just shrugged. "There’s a lot going on back there."
That anecdote from a few years ago came to mind this week when considering the mangled messaging put forth by rookie Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and, by extension, the conference presidents, in the wake of the decision to cancel fall sports.
To summarize: A lot of thinking is going on back there without the benefit of clear communication, or until recently any communication. After revealing on Aug. 11 the historic decision to cancel, Warren mimicked Marcel Marceau over the next eight days by uttering not a peep of explanation on how the decision was reached, including which presidents voted to cancel and which voted to forge ahead.
Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, the first-year commissioner released a letter of explanation that crossed some T’s but left enough I’s undotted that critics remain frustrated by what they see as lack of transparency.
"What Kevin Warren sent out not only is undermining what our young men and women wear on their jerseys … it’s embarrassing to the outcry of parents that support their kids," tweeted Randy Wade, father of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade and organizer of a protest planned for today outside Big Ten headquarters.
At best, Warren’s letter of clarification provided a partial road map into the decision-making process of the presidents, who relied on input from the commissioner as well as medical experts in determining that too many health unknowns remain with COVID-19 to risk the safety of athletes.
At worst, the letter created more confusion, beginning with whether an actual vote took place.
In announcing the presidents’ decision last week, Warren declined to clarify whether individuals voted, insisting it was a consensus decision. That makes sense. As much as those outside the room want specifics on voting tallies, many committees reach decisions by consensus to display unity and provide cover for members taken to task for how they voted.
I don’t like decisions made by consensus, but can live with it if that’s really what happened. But did it? In his Wednesday letter, Warren wrote, "The Vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited."
So which was it? A vote or consensus? The difference is not trivial. If individual voting occurred, then as state employees — except for Northwestern, a private school — presidents should reveal their vote.
Even more damaging than the specific process was Warren flip-flopping on his initial claim that the decision was made "on a collective basis," to advertising that a countable vote took place. If the consistency of his word cannot be trusted, then why believe anything he says? For example, in his letter Warren stressed that "financial considerations did not influence the (presidents’) decision."
Really? He either thinks we were born yesterday or that the Big Ten is such an honorable organization that money — i.e., threats of lawsuits if athletes’ health was compromised by COVID-19 — would never factor into the decision-making of an institution that is above reproach.
Talk about arrogance. Lack of humility explains why the conference swallowed its tongue for eight days before Warren’s letter. We’re the Big Ten. We don’t explain. Consider how the conference charged ahead without apparent consultation with three of the other Power Five conferences — the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern. (I suspect the Pac-12 knew what was coming, given its long friendship with the Big Ten, but wisely waited to cancel until the Big Ten went first.)
Overly puffed pride also suggests the Big Ten wanted to be first, to remind everyone it is the king influencer among conferences. Except this time the ACC, SEC and Big 12 did not fall in line, leaving the Big Ten dangling like a piñata.
Maybe those conferences eventually cancel their fall seasons and the Big Ten goes all "I told you so" on its critics. If so, that misses the point. The problem was not the Big Ten’s decision to cancel — reasonable people can conclude that playing college football during the coronavirus pandemic is not smart — but the real issue is the silence that followed the decision and the clumsy communication along the way.
At least in this instance, bouncer seats replaced boardroom chairs.