In open letter, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren explains controversial decision to postpone football

Sam Cooper
·6 mins read

More than a week after the Big Ten decided to postpone the football season amid the coronavirus pandemic, first-year conference commissioner Kevin Warren issued an open letter in an attempt to provide some clarity on the situation.

Other than Warren’s interview with Big Ten Network right after the news dropped last Tuesday, there has been little information provided by the conference other than saying “there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.” In the days since, the decision and the conference’s lack of transparency has been widely criticized — including a petition started by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

In his letter Wednesday, Warren said the decision “was thorough and deliberative, and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts.” He added that the vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was “overwhelmingly in support” of postponing fall sports. That vote “will not be revisited,” Warren said.

Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren talks to reporters after being named Big Ten Conference Commissioner during a news conference Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Rosemont, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren talks to reporters after being named Big Ten Conference Commissioner during a news conference Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Rosemont, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

From a health perspective, Warren said there was “simply too much we do not know about this virus” and cited risks like rising transmission rates, long-term effects of infection, concerns about contact tracing and the inability to practice social distancing in contact sports.

Warren also pointed to cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Myocarditis, a swelling of the heart muscle, has reportedly been linked to several Big Ten athletes who contracted COVID-19 and can cause cardiomyopathy. Though Warren acknowledged the specific data linking the virus to cardiomyopathy “is preliminary and incomplete,” he said the “uncertain risk was unacceptable at this time.”

“While several factors contributed to the decision to postpone the 2020-21 fall sports season, at the core of our decision was the knowledge that there was too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks regarding SARS-CoV-2 infection and its impact on our student-athletes,” Warren said.

The full list of medical reasons cited by Warren can be viewed here.

Was there an official vote?

The Pac-12 announced its decision to postpone fall sports only hours after the Big Ten and presented a clear message as to why and how it reached that conclusion. The Big Ten’s decision-making process, however, has been the source of much contention.

Warren has been panned for lacking transparency, and it hasn’t even been clear whether or not the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors held an official vote. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour caused a bit of an uproar Monday when she said it was “unclear” to her “whether there was ever a vote or not.”

In his letter, Warren said there was indeed a vote, and it “overwhelmingly” skewed toward postponing fall sports.

“We thoroughly understand and deeply value what sports mean to our student-athletes, their families, our coaches and our fans,” Warren said. “The vote by the Big Ten 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.”

Back on Aug. 11, Minnesota president Joan Gabel said the council “didn’t vote per se,” but there was a “deliberative process where we came to a decision together.” On Wednesday, Michigan State president Samuel Stanley said it was “more of a consensus than a vote.”

However the process played out, it yielded the conclusion to postpone fall sports.

Warren on postponing days after releasing schedule

A main source of criticism for the Big Ten was the timing of its decision. Just six days earlier, the conference released a full football schedule. When the schedule was released, Warren did include the necessary caveat that it did not guarantee a season would be played in the fall.

Still, it’s certainly understandable why many would feel the conference was giving mixed messages. In his letter, Warren was cognizant of that point of view.

“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 said.

“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: Finances ‘did not influence’ Big Ten decision

The lack of fall sports will cause a massive revenue hit for Big Ten schools.

Despite that, Warren said “financial considerations” did not factor in the conference’s decision at all.

“The postponement will have enormous adverse financial implications,” Warren said. “We understand the passion of the many student-athletes and their families who were disappointed by the decision, but also know there are many who have a great deal of concern and anxiety regarding the pandemic.

What’s next for the Big Ten?

While the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are continuing to prepare for a fall season, where does the Big Ten go from here? Warren said a “return to competition task force” has been established to plan for fall sports to return “as soon as possible.” The group will span an array of people from presidents to athletic directors to athletes. Medical personnel will also be involved, of course.

From a football perspective, Warren said various scheduling models in the winter and spring will be explored. One key is whether or not it is safe to cram two seasons into one calendar year.

“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 said.

One Big Ten school, Ohio State, released a statement from athletic director Gene Smith saying the school is confident it “has the safety protocols and safeguards … to practice and return to competition immediately.”

“While a decision has been made by the presidents of the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall season, we view this as a temporary delay, and [OSU president-elect Kristina M. Johnson] has directed us to prepare for the possibility of bringing at least some of our fall sports back to practice and competition by the end of the year. We are actively planning for the winter and spring seasons for all sports, including the return of football,” Smith said.

Earlier Wednesday, Penn State head coach James Franklin said he preferred a winter model for the return of football.

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