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New Big Ten commissioner faces major off-the-field issues in first few months on job

Alan Blinder The New York
Times
Kevin Warren is the first black commissioner of a Power Five conference. He has hit the ground running, last week announcing the creation of the Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. [Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The scene in Indianapolis in March — Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren grimly explaining why the coronavirus had prompted the abrupt cancellation of the league’s basketball tournament — was hardly how he envisioned his first year running one of the mightiest conferences in college sports.

But in his first six months alone at the Big Ten’s helm, Warren, a lawyer and the first black leader of a Power Five conference, has confronted a public health crisis with no precedent in American athletics.

Now, he is also grappling with the civil unrest that has roiled the nation after the death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis. Last week, he announced the creation of a Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition.

Before Warren moved to the Big Ten, he was the chief operating officer for the Minnesota Vikings and played college basketball at Pennsylvania and Grand Canyon.

Q: You worked in Minneapolis as one of the highest-ranking black men in the NFL, and you’re now a top figure in college sports. What are your thoughts on the events of the past few weeks?

A: It’s time for us to have thoughtful action.

We’re at a time in the evolution of our human race that we need to stop the madness, we need to eliminate hate, we need to eliminate racism, and we need to pull together and use every one of our resources, our intelligence, our financial resources, our positions of authority. We need to listen. We need to have open dialogue. We’re going to have to engage in some very painful conversations for us to take action in a manner that will save our country, save the human race and build a better future.

Q: What have your own experiences with the police been like?

A: I have the highest respect for law enforcement because it’s a very important part of our properly functioning in society.

But I’ve had some very uncomfortable experiences, and I articulate to both my 21-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter that they need to make sure that they are smart when they are questioned or stopped by law enforcement. I’ve had to do the same things. There’s just a certain — what we call black man protocol — that we have to have.

My son, every time he goes over to a friend’s house or goes out or even goes to dinner, I have a few words for him: “Be smart, and be safe.” I repeat that over and over again.

The last thing that I want to do as a black man is have uncomfortable engagement with law enforcement. Do I have stories? Yes. And most people I know like me, we’ve faced issues.

Q: America has spent generations talking about policing. Do you sense that the mood is different this time?

A: What has made the difference is the fact that we were able to see it with our own eyes. It’s one thing to read about an issue. It’s another thing to hear about an issue. And it’s another thing to see an issue. I’ve read for many years about Emmett Till, and I’ve seen the pictures of Emmett Till’s body.

But when you see George Floyd die in front of your eyes and when you see Ahmaud Arbery shot, it just does something to your soul and spirit.

Q: We’re seeing an unusual number of coaches, players and organizations speak out. Will that have any meaningful effect, or do more people need to do more than issue statements?

A: I think it does have a positive impact. It’s provided people a platform to express their concerns but also give people comfort. One reason why I was adamant about making sure that we formed our coalition, and why my wife, Greta, and I made a donation to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, is because I thought it would allow people to see that if I was comfortable enough to take a stand on these issues, which people may deem to be sensitive, it would empower them.

Q: The country is facing all of this during a pandemic that shut down sports. What was the last sporting event you attended?

A: The first night of the men’s basketball tournament. When people talk about momentum in a game, you could feel that there was a larger momentum, and I just got this sense that at some point in time over the next month I was going to be asked or required to make some very adult decisions, and it ended up being within the next 10 hours.

Q: What are your days like right now?

A: I have a daily call with our athletic directors at 7:45 in the morning, and then I have the Power Five commissioners at 9:25. And then I talk regularly with our chancellors and presidents. I’ve been averaging 80 to 85 conference calls every week. I think the shortest day we’ve had has been 12 hours, and now I understand why people really like their weekends.

But this has taught me to focus on the simple pleasures. I’ve also been spending a lot of time on my prayer life. I actually distributed “Draw the Circle: The 40 Day Prayer Challenge” to my family and whoever on our staff wanted it.

Q: How have you been following sports?

A: I watched a couple of the Masters reruns. Other than that, I haven’t watched any sports rewinds. I’ve paid more attention these last two months on what’s going on in the world. I’ve always been focused and intrigued by the financial markets — if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be working on Wall Street — but now I’m really focusing more on world politics.

Q: Have you binged any shows?

A: I never was a TV watcher, so I never had a show. My wife always had a show. But during this period, we tried to pick something almost every night, so we ended up watching 30 episodes of “Ozark,” and then we watched documentaries: “The Black Godfather;” we watched one on Miles Davis, and the most recent one, which was amazing, was “Who Killed Malcolm X?” We watched that right before the George Floyd murder happened.

Q: How have you coped with being cooped up?

A: I’m a huge salad person — these garbage salads where you have chicken and shrimp and avocados — so that’s been a go-to of mine.

I started shaving my head myself probably about two years ago. And if you had told me in January that I would have an opportunity to spend 60 or 70 days with my kids and my wife, I would have said no way. It’s been a forced sabbatical to be together, and you’re talking about something that I will remember for the rest of my life.

And I was able to finish my book called “Build Your Own Pool.” It’s about my story — I was in a bad car accident as a kid, broke my femur and took some of the money to build a pool in my parents’ backyard — so I’ve been working on a book about reaching within and building your own pool in life, whatever that is.

Q: What do you hope is the same — and what should be different — in sports once the pandemic ebbs?

A: What I hope is different is the fact that we recognize how much we love live sports. I think there was a period there where people forgot how much we love live sports, whether in person or on television.

I hope that we can create meaningful opportunities to thank our fans; so many times, it’s easy to assume that you have fans, and they’ve shown us how important they are to us.

What do I hope is different? Probably fan behavior. I hope people come out of this kinder and gentler, and that we appreciate each other more.