Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren kicked off the men’s and women’s basketball seasons for the conference Thursday in Indianapolis. Warren, who played basketball collegiately at Penn and Grand Canyon, spent much of his opening press conference emphasizing the league’s commitment to gender and racial equity.
Warren then sat down with Sports Illustrated to further discuss those plans, as well as realignment, name, image and likeness (NIL) and other key topics in the changing world of college athletics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: Women’s empowerment was a significant topic of conversation. Can you speak to some of the equity-driven issues that you’re focused on in women’s basketball?
Kevin Warren: Having a basketball media day with our men and women together just sets the tone of the way the conference, and me personally, views our women and especially our basketball players. We’re hiring a vice president of women’s basketball, which is critically important, and that person will be in place by the time the season starts. We have some incredible candidates. That way, they’ll be able to focus on this 24/7. With our programming, 52% of all the programming on BTN will be dedicated to women’s sports this year. The biggest thing we can do is talk about it, and not only talk about it but then, be about it. Today’s a prime example. Every time I look at this screen [and see women on BTN], it’s powerful.
SI: Do you support the proposal to move the women’s Final Four to the same place as the men’s?
KW: I’m a big believer in making sure that we ask women leaders, coaches, administrators and student-athletes what they think about it. One of the first things I’m going to do with our new vice president of women’s basketball is to sit down with that person and get their ideas. I love women’s basketball, watching it. I was so amped up to be able to go to our Big Ten tournament games, and I went back and forth a couple of times to San Antonio to watch them play in person.
SI: You referenced brand-building as a media day experience. What do you think your role as commissioner and your role as a conference is in building players’ brands in the NIL age?
KW: I think it’s to provide platforms for them, just like today. Every one of our women student-athletes, women’s basketball players, men’s student-athletes, men’s basketball players … we’ll have a lot of them who will get drafted, who will play in the WNBA or the NBA, we’ll have some that will be All-Pro, we’ll have some that will be in the Hall of Fame. But we’ll also have some that may not be drafted, and they’ll be out in grad school or corporate America. Experiences like they’re getting today, being in front of the camera and being interviewed, this is what I call a powerful field trip. And I’m a believer in the power of field trips. The opportunity to travel, to experience, to learn and get dressed up is special.
SI: What feedback have you gotten from coaches, administrators and players about NIL so far?
KW: I think the feedback is that it’s starting to settle in. There were so many people who were very concerned about it, but things settle where they are supposed to, they really do. And that’s what I think is happening with NIL. There are some student-athletes who have been able to earn, probably, substantial amounts of money, some maybe not, but they’ll be able to do things like work at camps and get paid for it. So I think it is a win-win. My big concern is making sure that our players are educated about the importance of how to handle money, to understand it, and up through now people are pleased with the progress.
SI: You spoke about a lot of the planning for the Alliance with regard to mental health, social justice and other initiatives. What do you see as the Alliance’s role in scheduling for men’s and women’s basketball?
KW: It will be there. I just think that any time we can afford our student-athletes in the Big Ten an opportunity to cross-pollinate with other conferences, go play some Pac-12 teams, play some ACC teams, get a chance to travel, that in of itself is an educational experience. So we’ll look at scheduling opportunities in all of our sports. We’re starting to work on that.
SI: The Pac-12 just announced a plan to partner with the SWAC and play home-and-home series. Is that something you’d consider?
KW: That’s awesome. I reached out to George [Kliavkoff] and told him “That is powerful!” It’s good again from an experiential standpoint, both ways. You think about the men and women in the Pac-12 who, as this expands, get the chance to go play at HBCU schools and vice versa. I think we realize as we get older that this world is small, there are a lot of different ways that we can work together, there are different ways that we can do good stuff together.
SI: On realignment, the Big 12 has been a basketball power. When you see movement happening in a league that you’re competing with, what does that do for your mindset in how you position the Big Ten in basketball?
KW: I think it’s critically important. When you look at all of our coaches in the Big Ten, and all of our student-athletes, we have a really strong conference. We have the best coaches, we have the best student-athletes. I think it’s important now, especially as conference realignment occurs, there are going to be some great opportunities for our young people to play some really good basketball. People want to come to the Big Ten. People want to play in the Big Ten. The success we had last year I think will serve as a launching pad for this year.
SI: With COVID-19 not quite in the rear view mirror yet, you’ve had success with football being able to play all the games on the schedule. What are the challenges that you anticipate with basketball, especially heading into wintertime?
KW: COVID will be interesting. That’s why I’m glad that we have Dr. [Jim] Borchers here to provide lessons from last year. When you get into the winter season, it becomes challenging because there are so many more games. One good thing about football is that it has a rhythm. You’re typically playing, maybe an occasional game on Friday but you’re playing on Saturday. So we have to be really smart, understand it’s not over, be really diligent and vigilant in regards to COVID-19 and stay prayerful that we continue to make good decisions. And that’s why it’s so important that we now have a chief medical officer [in Borchers], who can address a lot of these issues.