Kevin Warren has found himself in the spotlight much of 2020, and a lot of the time it hasn’t been a good thing. As the first and currently only Black man in charge of a Power 5 conference in his role as commissioner of the Big Ten, Warren got a huge amount of criticism throughout the summer when he announced that the conference would not be playing football this fall. There were protests internally from some coaches, demonstrations led by parents, and an outcry that stretched all the way to the White House.
President Donald Trump made public appeals for the Big Ten to resume play. Warren initially said there was no way the decision would be reversed. But then the conference watched the SEC and ACC dominate the headlines as they decided to play the season, along with the Big 12.
Despite having to cancel and reschedule games and deal with campus outbreaks and reduced player availabilities, enough games were being played that the Big Ten felt obligated to reverse its stance. They were later joined by the Pac-12, making it official that all the Power 5 schools were convinced football could be safely played despite new COVID-19 surges occurring throughout the Midwest and across the nation.
Warren appeared this past Saturday on ESPN’s College Gameday. He said he was happy for players and coaching staffs around his conference having a chance to play this season. Warren continues to insist the decision was not changed due to monetary concerns, but because school officials had learned more about COVID-19 from medical professionals, and were convinced the season could be played safely with the right protocols in place.
“The greatest concern just remains health and safety,” Warren told Kirk Herbstreit and the GameDay gang. “That’s why we’re doing all that we possibly can. We have a strong, daily testing program in place. Our leadership, our medical task force and so many people on campus and what we’ve been able to do and put in place, we just have to continue to be very mindful, be very hopeful, and be very prayerful that we, as a Big Ten community, remain healthy and safe.”
The Big Ten’s revised plan to combat COVID-19 includes daily testing, enhanced contact tracing and stipulations if a player or coach tests positive. The Big Ten officially kicked off its revised schedule Friday night as Wisconsin handled Illinois, 45-7. The league’s full slate began Saturday, with Ohio State hosting Nebraska and Michigan traveling to Minnesota — with College GameDay in town — as the featured games.
Like the SEC, the Big Ten is doing a conference-only schedule. This was done to reduce travel. The new schedule also means some of the bigger games will be occurring earlier than usual. One example is this weekend’s Ohio State vs. Penn State contest, which would normally come much later in the year.
It’s hard not be view this about face in a cynical matter though, despite Warren’s assurances. Health experts worldwide are predicting that the next few months are going to be the worse yet in terms of infections and surges, mostly due to the arrival of colder weather and the flu season. Why these factors wouldn’t make it more chancy to play football, a constant contact sport with large rosters of players and coaches, than to wait until there was at least a vaccine in place, remains an unanswered question.
The virus is also having an impact on weekly schedules. The University of Memphis went three straight weeks cancelling games due player unavailability, while Vanderbilt has been plagued all season with roster problems due to COVID-19. Its impact has made a team that in the best of times struggles to be competitive seem totally overmatched trying to get through an all-SEC schedule.
But the hardest hit are the smaller schools. These are the HBCUs, Ivy League, Patriot League and others who cancelled their seasons and now can’t reschedule those missed games or recapture that revenue. It will be interesting to see if the NCAA, now that they’ve made certain they’ll have their big money College Football Playoff at season’s end, will help those schools.
However for Kevin Warren, the reversed decision takes him off the media griddle, at least for now.