Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren met with student journalists from nine schools for a sports journalism town hall.
Warren recently spoke on subjects ranging from student-athlete safety, Name, Image and Likeness, or NIL and conference realignment. He took questions from the journalists on these issues while discussing the conference’s current outlook and position for the future. The schools included were Michigan State, Maryland, Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State and Indiana.
Warren — who has never spoken with student journalists exclusively in a wide-scale fashion — said he wanted to meet with the student media because of its importance in telling the stories of Big Ten athletes. In summer 2020, The State News spoke with Warren prior to the cancelation and later reinstatement of college football due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the hour-long discussion, Warren emphasized promoting student-athlete safety and education. He talked about issues such as sexual assault prevention and financial literacy in the new age of NIL being at the forefront of the Big Ten’s agenda in the coming years. The main focus is to protect Big Ten student-athletes while in college and set them up for success post-graduation.
Q: Commissioner Warren, given that four Big Ten institutions have had sexual assault scandals in the past decade, what steps is the Big Ten taking to protect student-athletes and prevent university employees from taking advantage of them?
A: As you're aware, I wasn't here when those unfortunate situations occurred. I know I've made it very clear here from a conference-level standpoint that we respect all individuals. We want to make sure that we create a very safe environment for our student-athletes to make sure that people have a line of communication with the appropriate individuals on campus. And that they know that they have our support here from a conference office standpoint, to make sure they understand what we stand for and what we don't stand for.
We will continually make sure we have active and open communication and dialogue to create safe spaces. Again, none of our student-athletes on our campuses, at least who are competing on our campuses, are professionals; they're amateurs. And all of our student-athletes, all of our students just like you all, deserve the right and have earned the right to earn a world-class education in a safe environment. So it's a focus of mine every day to make sure we're doing everything that we can at the conference level to ensure that our student-athletes are safe from any negative issues that occur in society.
Q: How do you see the new NIL legislature impacting the competitive balance of the conference in the near future? And is there any concern amongst the Big Ten of it potentially being used to offer recruiting advantages?
A: I'm very supportive of the opportunity for our student-athletes to be able to be fairly compensated for their name, image and likeness. I think all of you all know this has been ... you could feel this has been a long time coming. I'm comfortable also that the market will kind of dictate how NIL will work. One thing I still feel strongly about is that we should have some federal legislation so we don't have all this different patchwork between different states. So there should be some federal legislation, as you know that hasn't happened yet.
But I'm very supportive of NIL. I am happy for our student-athletes who had an opportunity to be able to monetize their name, image and likeness and will always be supportive of that. I'm not supportive of pay for play. I think that's where the line of demarcation between amateurism and professionalism needs to be drawn. So we need to make sure that we guard against that so our student-athletes can have an opportunity to take advantage of getting a world-class education.
Q: With a lot of moving pieces in terms of conference realignment, what would you say is kind of the criteria to be a Big Ten school?
A: I think from the seat that I sit in, it is really important that we recognize the importance for our young men and women who compete for our institutions as student-athletes, that our schools were designed to provide a platform to educate our student-athletes. And they're not athlete-students. This is not that you come to a Big Ten institution, play sports and ‘Oh, yeah by the way, when you're there, maybe you'll go to a few classes'. It's just the opposite. And so it is really important that we keep that in mind that we keep that as one of our cornerstones of what made the Big Ten, the Big Ten from the beginning. And what continues to make the Big Ten, the Big Ten is that academics have to be paramount here. Yes, our student-athletes are talented, yes they're some of the best in the country, certainly just as some of the best in the world, but we cannot at all lower our requirements of our academic standards.
So I think the biggest thing is that we have to be continually mindful. No matter how much fanfare exists and with our ratings and bowls and tournaments and national championships, is that we are a conference of 14 incredible schools in the higher Ed. arena. And it's important that we make sure that we focus each and every day on providing an atmosphere for our student-athletes to get a world-class education.
Q: In regards to diversity, what's the conference's reaction to the lack of diversity in head coaching hires, especially in sports where there are more people of color?
A: I think quite naturally, obviously, diversity, equity and inclusion is important to me. I recognize from my standpoint, we've only had five commissioners in the history of the Big Ten conference. I have their portraits on my wall. Five individuals since 1895 have held this position; I'm the sixth one and none of them have looked like me. And not only here in the conference, but in all of the Power Five conferences. So I recognize that it's important for me to make sure that I do everything I can to perform at the highest level to provide opportunities for women and people of color in these positions.
I am pleased that during this last offseason, the hiring cycle, you look at the number of coaches that were hired from a men's standpoint, I believe we hired four coaches. Ben Johnson at Minnesota, Micah Shrewsberry at Penn State and Mike Woodson at Indiana; those three individuals are all black men. And then we had Marisa Moseley at the University of Wisconsin, a woman of color.
Q: Since you've taken over, Michigan State has made a number of administrative changes in hopes of changing campus culture from hiring President Samuel Stanley Jr. to Athletic Director Alan Haller. From your perspective, how do you feel MSU has handled the situation with the intention of establishing a safer environment for student-athletes?
A: Man, I think one good thing about Michigan State and some of our other schools there, we're focusing on making sure our environment is safe for our student-athletes. There have been some very difficult, challenging, very sad issues that have occurred. But every single day, I know, speaking for the people at Michigan State, I know they're doing everything that they can. I trust the leadership there under President Stanley and Alan Haller. They want to make sure that they build an absolutely world-class environment for their student-athletes, to keep their student-athletes safe and healthy and be supported there. So I've really enjoyed working with President Stanley and Alan Haller and many of the coaches of Michigan State University.
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