Iowa javelin thrower Marissa Mueller was riding an exercise bike in the school’s workout facility during the winter when a visitor sat down on the bike next to her and started pedaling.
It was Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren.
New to the job and touring all the conference’s campuses, Warren made a point of meeting the league’s athletes where they lived and trained. That included the workout at Iowa, which was followed up by a tour of facilities with Mueller and two other athletes. Then the group sat down to lunch together, a meal Warren used as a vehicle for what he called “a family discussion.”
“He wanted to hear from each of us individually,” said Mueller, a junior premed student. “He wasn’t just there to talk to the president and athletic director. He was reaching down the student-athlete level to see how we’re doing. He really made an emphasis on putting himself in our student-athlete experience.”
Warren’s athletes-first leadership philosophy takes on added heft today, with the Big Ten announcing the next step in a mental health initiative that is a key part of the commissioner’s vision. In conjunction with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the league announced its Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet, which includes representatives from all 14 league members plus its two affiliate members (Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame). And the Big Ten will give athletes, coaches, full-time members of university athletic departments and conference staff members free access to Calm, the popular mental fitness app.
There is a rising tide of mental health awareness on college campuses in general, and within athletic departments specifically. Warren is enthusiastically onboard and wants his conference to be one of the leaders in the expanding field.
Back in December, when the Big Ten cabinet met for the first time to discuss the mental health initiative, the commissioner’s message found a very receptive audience.
“Kevin made it crystal clear that this was a top priority,” said Michigan senior associate athletic director Greg Harden, a member of the Big Ten cabinet and a person who has been an integral athlete counseling resource for Wolverines for decades. “This wasn’t just a check-the-box thing. He was so passionate about it.
“I don’t think he understood what he did for the practitioners. He’s got some people who are spending their lives on this issue. When the commissioner says, ‘Tell us what you need,’ this is a breakthrough moment. We suddenly realized we have an opportunity to do something radically different.”
Warren is different. He’s not just the first black commissioner of a Power 5 conference; he’s coming at the job with a unique work background as well. He spent two decades working in the NFL, most notably 14 years with the Vikings. He oversaw the franchise’s moves to U.S. Bank Stadium and its new practice facility.
A big part of his job is communicating on an administrative level with university presidents and chancellors. He is called upon to work closely with media partners. But at heart, the former college basketball player sees his current role as a chance to connect with Big Ten athletes and help maximize their college experience beyond their sport. That includes financial literacy, registering to vote and mental health.
“We understand, as leaders and in leadership positions, that life is complex and life is difficult,” Warren told Sports Illustrated. “It’s a challenging time in our world even without COVID-19. We want our student-athletes to get more in touch with mental health and mental fitness. We want them to recognize the importance of taking care of themselves, and to not see mental health issues as a stigma. I hope the takeaway for our student-athletes is that the Big Ten Conference cares about you.”
The authenticity behind that statement starts at home for Warren. His son, Powers, is a tight end at Mississippi State. Like every other college athlete, Powers Warren is a bit at loose ends right now—not on campus, not attending classes in person, not working out with his teammates. That uncertainty is amplified by having a new coaching staff. (Mike Leach took over in January after the firing of Joe Moorhead, presenting a radical departure in style both personally and strategically.)
So, yes, Kevin Warren knows pretty well what college athletes are going through. He’s got one under his roof right now in suburban Chicago.
“He packed up and didn’t know if he would be home for a week or a month, and now it’s looking like multiple months,” Warren said. “They have goals and aspirations, and you want to help them reach them. But in the bigger picture, we all know people who have died from COVID-19. It’s not something you hear about on the other side of the world. It’s heightened my sense of gratitude, because every day we have together is special.”
Despite the difficulties of the present situation, Warren has seen abundant benefit to having Powers and his daughter, Peri, home for an extended period of time. Like many parents of college-age or young-adult children, he thought those days might have been gone forever. Now he’s thinking that this sort of family rebonding might be beneficial on an annual basis for everyone.
“It’s almost a sabbatical from life,” Warren said. “We might all be better off if we take a month together as a family.”
Not that it’s been easy for the Warrens, or any other family of athletes. Accustomed to a ritualistic, fast-paced schedule and moving in concert with teammates, classmates and coaches, this is a time of forced adaptation.
Mueller, for instance, is back home in Canada. Her father made a 19-hour round-trip drive to get her in March, and, in addition to studying for the MCAT exam, she is trying to maintain some sort of workout regimen. In her sport, that’s pretty challenging.
“I don’t have a javelin at home to chuck around the backyard,” she said.
Mueller’s junior season never happened. She was in the weight room at Iowa in March when the news came that all NCAA spring sports championships had been canceled.
“I literally felt like I swallowed a shot put,” she said. “The entire weight room went silent.”
That silence has only been amplified in the weeks that have followed. The void left by the absence of sports has been difficult to fill—for fans, sure, but most profoundly for the athletes themselves.
That’s why the Big Ten’s mental health initiative is well timed. It’s not the only one nationwide, but it’s an important one that reaches thousands of young adults. That’s where Kevin Warren is striving to make his mark as a commissioner, on the athlete level.