Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on Wednesday released an open letter to the conference community stating that the vote by the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.”
“The decision was thorough and deliberative, and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts,” Warren wrote in his first public comments since announcing the league’s decision on Aug. 11. “Despite the decision to postpone fall sports, we continue our work to find a path forward that creates a healthy and safe environment for all Big Ten student-athletes to compete in the sports they love in a manner that helps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protects both student-athletes and the surrounding communities.”
The Big Ten has faced significant backlash over the timing of the decision, which came just six days after the league announced its 10-game, conference-only schedule on the Big Ten Network. Coaches, athletic directors, fans and parents have publicly and privately expressed frustration and outrage at a lack of communication and explanation on the about-face.
“We understand the disappointment and questions surrounding the timing of our decision to postpone fall sports, especially in light of releasing a football schedule only six days prior to that decision,” Warren wrote. “From the beginning, we consistently communicated our commitment to cautiously proceed one day at a time with the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes at the center of our decision-making process. That is why we took simultaneous paths in releasing the football schedule, while also diligently monitoring the spread of the virus, testing, and medical concerns as student-athletes were transitioning to full-contact practice.”
Warren cited “too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks regarding SARS-CoV-2 infection,” and its impact on the student-athletes. He listed several primary factors in the presidents’ decision, including the “alarming rate” of transmission rates, a concern about the return of the general student body, and concerns about contact tracing. He also wrote that “as our teams were ramping up for more intense practices, many of our medical staffs did not think the interventions we had planned would be adequate to decrease the potential spread even with very regular testing.”
The Big Ten has assembled a return to competition task force that will plan for the return of fall sports competition “as soon as possible.”
“In evaluating winter/spring models, we will explore many factors including the number of football games that can reasonably be played from a health perspective in a full calendar year while maintaining a premier competitive experience for our student-athletes culminating in a Big Ten Championship,” Warren wrote. “The Big Ten Conference will continue to collect feedback from student-athletes, families, and other constituents and remains in active discussions with its television partners regarding all future plans.”
In an interview with ESPN, Warren sought to clear up the confusion about whether there was actually a vote taken on what might have been the biggest decision in conference history.
“Yes, there was a vote,” he said. “My understanding is the Big Ten has never talked about the voting process or the results. There was a vote by our chancellors and presidents who were overwhelmingly in support of postponing the fall season.”
When asked about the communication from the league down to the coaches, Warren said the conference “communicated to the best of our abilities, but I’m absolutely willing to accept the responsibility that will be a focus to make sure we communicate better, not only internally, but externally as we go forward.
“From a communication standpoint, I can do a better job and I will do a better job to communicate better,” he said. “But again, from a decision-making standpoint, we believed we were methodical in our decision-making process; we asked our medical advisors and our medical experts to provide us with professional medical information and the decision was made by our chancellors and presidents based on that medical information.”
Some parents have suggested that any teams that don’t feel safe playing this year should be able to “opt out,” just as the athletes were allowed to do. Warren said that in order to be a conference, it has to act like one.
“We have certain rules and regulations that provide us with the opportunity to come together, to work together, and to build an incredible environment to allow our young people to compete in NCAA athletics,” he said. “There are some schools in the country who are independent, and they made that determination. And they operate that way. The Big Ten Conference has been built on these 14 schools [that] agreed to be a member of a conference. We work together as a conference.”
Some have criticized Warren because his son, Powers Warren, is a tight end for Mississippi State, and the SEC is one of the three Power 5 conferences that have continued to push forward in an attempt to play this fall.
“We’ve had many difficult discussions as a family,” Kevin Warren said. “My focus from a Big Ten perspective is what is the right thing to do every day for our student-athletes. That’s my focus, and it has to remain my focus.”
When asked directly if he will let Powers play this fall, Warren said, “He just started practice yesterday. We’ll continue our family discussions.”
Randy Wade, father of Ohio State star defensive back Shaun Wade, said he’s not satisfied with Warren’s letter and still plans to protest peacefully Friday outside Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois. “It’s going down now,” Wade said. “I had one poster made. I’m going to have two now.”
Randy Wade said he takes issue with the fact that Warren’s son is going to play for Mississippi State while his son is sidelined at Ohio State. And Wade says he realizes his protest might be for naught.
“I’m not saying anything’s going to change by me going up there, but I can’t stand for uncertainty,” he said. “Uncertainty is not enough. I need to know what percentages need to go down, how you want things to happen, to make things better.”
Warren won’t be at the office on Friday, telling ESPN the conference office has been closed because of the pandemic, with employees working remotely.
“I’m sure at the appropriate time in the appropriate setting, we’ll have an opportunity to meet,” Warren said.
In the aftermath of the decision, athletic directors throughout the league began scrambling to put together a plan for the spring — or at least concepts of what it might look like. Warren said those ideas weren’t in place when the decision to postpone was made because all of their time and effort had been spent on trying to make the fall work.
“We were focused on doing all that we could to have a fall sports season, especially a fall football season,” he said. “We have a return to competition task force … [Wisconsin athletic director] Barry Alvarez is the chair of, really, our schedule. We are focused on building the best opportunity in the winter or the spring, assuming that from a medical standpoint it’s safe for us to compete.”
Warren was asked on Wednesday evening if he would change the way he handled anything.
“If I could go back and do this all again, the decision our chancellors and presidents made is absolutely the right decision,” he said. “I would focus on making sure our internal communication was better. That’s what I would do. But as far as the decision? Did we do the right thing based on the medical information we have? Yes. I’m confident we made the right decision because we put the health and safety of our student-athletes — their physical and mental health — at the top of our decision-making process.
“This was a difficult decision that had incredible, complicated financial ramifications,” he said. “But I’m confident we made the right decision.”
ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.