Kevin Warren had officially been commissioner of the Big Ten Conference for less than three months when he climbed onto a podium in the press area at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It was just about noon on March 11. He did not break any news when he began to speak into the microphone; everyone assembled already was aware the Big Ten Tournament had been canceled.
We all knew what was coming, again, when he appeared Tuesday afternoon on Big Ten Network. Word the league was postponing its fall sports season — perhaps to the spring, perhaps to never — had leaked out all over Twitter during the half-hour before he was interviewed by host Dave Revsine. Those holding out faint hope those reports might be premature had their illusions shattered when BTN co-host Mike Hall made it official with a report directly from conference headquarters.
It has been a hell of a first year for Warren.
Yeah, that word fits in every sense.
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Warren began working at the Big Ten last September and officially became commissioner on Jan. 1. What has happened since? The cancellation of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament. The cancellation of 2020 spring sports. Now, perhaps the biggest of all: postponement of 2020 fall sports, which includes the most significant of all the competitions the conference conducts. Warren’s predecessor, Jim Delany, insisted he wasn’t retiring upon announcing he would leave the job that had been his for three decades.
Whatever he calls it, he certainly had excellent timing.
This is what the job has been for Warren: planning, then canceling those plans. Less than a week earlier, the Big Ten released a modified conference-only football schedule for 2020 that was ingeniously designed, with each team having multiple bye weeks that coincided with recent opponents’ in case games had to be postponed on account of the virus. Warren cautioned at the time the league still might not compete in 2020, but the speed with which those plans were undone was unfathomable.
Warren chose not to explain exactly what occurred in that brief period to cause the Big Ten to make such an extraordinary change in direction. Now, there’ll be still more planning: what to do about two-semester sports, particularly men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling, whether a spring football season is plausible and how to handle eligibility issues if a season is not contested.
If there is to be football in the spring, how will the league’s television partners desire to adjust their schedules? The Big Ten has contracts with ESPN, Fox Sports and BTN. How would such a season be greeted by the participants — and the public? These are all issues Warren and his team will need to consider, and it’s at least a possibility they could do all that work only to be in position to conduct another several sorry-it’s-canceled interviews.
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What is being lost with this decision was so obvious from the B-roll shots that aired during the BTN broadcast: 107,601 at the Big House; 104,944 at the Horseshoe and 106,572 in Happy Valley. We understand those crowds would not have been in place this autumn, but those are the enduring pictures of a college football autumn in Big Ten country.
As well, there are the great players who might not be compelled to compete in a spring season in such proximity to the NFL Draft and the 2021 NFL season: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth or Buckeyes lineman Wyatt Davis.
Warren defended the decision to withdraw the Big Ten from fall sports competition on the basis of the medical advice provided to the league’s 14 members.
“As things began to evolve, you look at the number of cases that are spiking, the number of deaths — not only in our country, in our states, where many of our schools are located, but worldwide — is that promise, that all the decisions we make during my tenure here at the Big Ten will always put the mental and physical health of our student-athletes at the center,” he said. “We just believe, collectively, there’s too much uncertainty at this time to really encourage our athletes to participate in fall sports.”
Over the summer months, many who desired to see college football in its proper place in the calendar publicly pleaded for the public to follow the best public health guidance for control of the virus. We all have seen photographs and videotape from various states in Big Ten country illustrating the scores of people unwilling to accede to those appeals: a race track, a lakeshore, a beach.
It is impossible to conceive this country making so little progress in battling a virus — a virus that has been controlled, contained and even conquered by myriad others — that five months to the day after Warren explained why there would be no more Big Ten men’s basketball, he was back again explaining why there would be no Big Ten football in 2020.
Literally none of this is Warren’s fault. It is his problem, though, and will be for a while.