Iowa Hawkeyes

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren is putting student-athletes first and foremost

From mental health to the likeness issue, Warren wants college athletes to walk away with fulfillment, a degree and a better life

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Marc Morehouse)
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Marc Morehouse)

IOWA CITY — The Big Ten is three years away from its next TV deal. Nine conference football games are likely here to stay. Divisional football might get a look, but Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren believes Big Ten football is set up for success.

That’s all future stuff and items that will be debated to the nth from now and through eternity. When Warren met with media Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, he made it clear he’s in this to improve the whole college experience for student-athletes.

“The first thing above everything is making sure we educate, empower, encourage our student-athletes not to be good, but to be exceptional,” said Warren, 56, who was COO for the Minnesota Vikings before his hiring was announced last June. “And under that, for us to do it, we need to make sure that they’re healthy from a mental health and wellness standpoint, that we have financial literacy training for them, we teach them how to register to vote, we challenge them to be holistic citizens, not only while they are in our conference, but also prepare them for life after intercollegiate athletics.”

Let’s touch on the bigger topics Warren addressed.

Mental health and wellness

The University of Iowa has been active in the realm of mental health and wellness for its athletes for several years. Still, there’s a waitlist for UI Counseling Services. Sports has the resources to help students through faster, but this is going to need more bodies, and Warren is well aware of that.

He reflected on his need for aid. When he was 11, Warren was in a terrible car accident. It left him in a body cast and in traction.

“I had a long conversation with one of my older sisters recently who stayed in the hospital with me for weeks, and she said that I would go through fits of terror that at night that I would absolutely scream and cry and make noises so badly, they actually went to the doctor and said what’s wrong with Kevin?” Warren said. “And the doctor told them that during the day he can mask his emotions and feelings, but at night time his true pain comes out.

“And I thought about it, out all of the medical personnel I went through, all the surgeries that I had, being in traction, a body cast, not one time, not one time did I meet with a counselor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist to ask me how I was doing.”

Warren knows the pain is real and he wants to do something about it.

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“I look at this as an opportunity for the Big Ten and intercollegiate athletics for us to save lives,” he said. “We have people on our campus right now who are struggling. Right now I guarantee you there are people on campuses in our Big Ten institutions who are struggling with mental health and wellness. Some of them have contemplated suicide. Some of them have made poor choices to mask their feelings. And I just want to make sure that all of our student-athletes — back to me saying at the top of this that we put our student-athletes at the epicenter of all our decisions, if that were our son or daughter or our grandson or granddaughter, what would be the right thing for us to do?

Warren, whose son, Powers, plays tight end at Mississippi State, knows that every student-athlete in the Big Ten likely won’t have their own personal sports psychologist, but he won’t allow that to be an excuse.

“What I don’t want to hear and what alarms me is when I hear stories of a student-athlete going for help and they’re told that we can take you in 30 days from now, that’s what we can’t have,” he said. “We have too many resources, we have too many smart people. We have too many great institutions. And so this is something I’m going to really push the envelope on.”

Name, image and likeness debate

NCAA sports are hurtling toward college athletes being able to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

Warren is 100-percent “college model.” He mentioned that repeatedly. He’s currently on a tour of all 14 Big Ten schools and he’s been a consistent no on “pay for play.”

That said, this isn’t a blind sport for Warren. The NCAA voted yes on this in October. So, now what? Well, the fact that it’s being discussed as an action item puts a clock on it. There was nothing definitive here, but you can clearly see it’s spinning around Warren’s brain.

“I’ve challenged people within the Big Ten,” he said. “I’ve challenged other people within college sports. I want to get to the point where we can discuss all of those things that we talk around our dinner tables that we haven’t been able to discuss before.”

One-time transfer rule

Warren was a freshman basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’80s. He was a freshman when Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery was a senior at Penn. Warren eventually transferred. Through that prism, it’ll be shocking if this isn’t implemented in the Big Ten and beyond.

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“The lawyer in me started to get concerned with of all the personal issues that people had to share to get a waiver,” he said. “You’d have to go into personal issues, maybe if your mother was ill or your father was ill or if you were ill or if you were having mental health and wellness issues. I’m always very protective of people’s personal information.

“And so I’m a big believer that every individual, every student-athlete should have an opportunity on a onetime basis to make sure that they are allowed to transfer.”

If they transfer again, though, Warren said, probably be prepared to sit out a year.

Big Ten officiating

Everyone wants perfect officiating. Not ... gonna ... happen.

Warren put on the whistle for a few of his kids’ youth basketball games. It was an eye opener.

“These are like sixth-graders running around, and you know, I’m missing calls, I’m at a wrong angle. I’m thinking like, you know what, this job is harder than you really think,” he said.

It’s a human endeavor and so expecting perfection will lead to a few broken TV sets.

But just quickly on replay, “Instant replay should be for those certain plays, but it should not be that every single play that we have to stop a game to do it,” Warren said.

Warren is comfortable with the current officiating model. The Big Ten signed director of officials Bill Carollo to a five-year extension in December.

“That doesn’t mean that we should cut them total slack because they’re professionals,” Warren said. “But I say that to say part of the beauty about intercollegiate athletics is to have another human being involved from an officiating standpoint. And all I ask is that our officials are trained, we provide them with the best equipment, that they’re focused and that they come into each and every game with a heart of fairness.

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“And so long as that happens, will every call go your way? No. But that is what people talk about for years to come, but as far as from the Big Ten standpoint, whether it’s our basketball or football or our other officials, I’m comfortable with where we are, and you have my word that we’ll continually every single year try to train them to even get better.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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