Proverbs 11:25 states “The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered.” It is fitting that this is one of Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s favorite bible verses: as one of the most powerful men in college sports, he is using his influence to “water” others and break down barriers along the way.
On June 4th, 2019, Kevin Warren was hired as the Sixth Big Ten Commissioner since the conference was founded in 1896 and the first African American to serve in the position. No one could have predicted the challenges that he would face in his first year, but his life experiences prepared him to face the 2020 sports seasons head-on.
At age 12, Warren was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. After the accident, he spent weeks in traction in a full-body cast and months confined to bed. He was told that he never would play sports again, but he was given a glimmer of hope when the doctor suggested he take up swimming. Warren saw that as his opportunity to return to sports, utilizing $11,000 of his settlement to build a pool in his backyard so he could swim as much as possible.
Six years later, his work paid off: he wasn’t just running again, he was playing Division I basketball for the University of Pennsylvania where he and his team won an Ivy League Championship for the 1981-1982 season. Later, Warren transferred to Grand Canyon University in his home state of Arizona where he would score an impressive1,118 points and become the fifth basketball player in team history to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Warren says his accident and basketball career gave him a unique perspective not only on the sport but also on life:
“I was so grateful [to play Basketball]” Warren said. “That’s why I attack every workout, every event. I attack… life is fragile, and short and there are no guarantees.”
In addition to making him a great athlete, Warren’s “attack-the-day” attitude served him well far beyond the basketball court. After graduating from GCU, he went on to Arizona State, earning an MBA, then to Notre Dame where he earned a law degree.
Before becoming commissioner, Warren held a number of positions both in and out of sports In 2015, he became COO for the Minnesota Vikings, becoming the highest-ranking African American on the business side of an NFL team.
The Year Sports Shut Down
Two months into his tenure as Commissioner of the Big Ten the entire global community ground to a screeching halt with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioners all over the sports industry were tasked with the impossible: figuring out how to deal with the unknown variables of a worldwide pandemic. In 2020, the Big Ten also addressed the rising social issues facing America and reevaluated how to best serve their student-athletes mental and physical health needs.
To do this, the Conference created innovative programs to benefit their athletes: they established the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet that focuses on counseling and mental health support, and are helping to give student-athletes a voice through the Anti-hate and Anti-racism Coalition. At the 2021 Big Ten Basketball Media Days, the conference announced that they will dedicate 52% of their programming to Women’s sports this season; this announcement came off the heels of the first-ever combined Media Days for both Men’s and Women’s Basketball.
“We’re changing history, we’re making history,” Warren said. “A lot of the individuals who are involved in media day today will be talking about this 20 years from now and I think it’s encouraging in what we can do…. Even though we have maybe fallen short in certain areas of gender equity, we can do better, but it’s never too late. Let’s just start today.”
When his career is over, Warren hopes that his impact reaches far beyond the people and athletes he interacts with every day. Beyond that, he wants to impact the next generation of sports executives.
“I want my legacy to be someone who did it right; who worked hard and did it with grace, and class, and integrity, but also who kicked down a lot of doors, in the NFL and then in College sports, and who did things like we did today, you know, a lot of firsts.”
Like Warren, we believe at Greater Than The Game that if you continue to kick down doors for the right reasons, you can impact people for years to come.
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