Warren has served as commissioner for nearly six months, but his tenure has already required him to navigate the cancellation of seasons because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and now the widespread protests of racial injustices that have swept the nation following the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police.
The Big Ten announced Monday the launch of its voter registration initiative, a program in the works since February but with even more significance now as many athletes have spoken out, hoping for change.
“There’s entirely too much racism in our country, and there are many ways that we can go about changing it,” Warren said in a telephone interview. “But the fundamental way, I’m a big believer, is to make sure that people exercise their right to vote and also to make sure that we combat voter suppression.”
The initiative will encourage athletes to take part in the electoral process and help them stay informed through monthly programming that begins in July and runs through the Nov. 3 general election.
The hope, Warren said, is that even after this election cycle, the athletes will have a stronger understanding of how local and national politics affect their lives. He wants them to realize how their vote, or lack thereof, influences who serves in important roles, such as county sheriff or district attorney. A single vote, Warren repeatedly emphasizes, matters. And the Big Ten has thousands of college-aged athletes, many of whom might be voting for the first time this year.
“In the Big Ten Conference, our student-athletes are citizens first,” Warren said. “What we want to do is make sure we provide a platform to help them create meaningful change.”
The nonpartisan initiative is coordinated by a committee with representatives from each school and will have subcommittees that address timeline, outreach and rollout; technology and data; and education and programming. Through a partnership with Election Protection, a coalition of voting rights activists, the conference will also work to combat voter suppression.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and the organization’s board of governors said in a statement last week that they “encourage students to continue to make their voices heard on these important issues, engage in community activism and exercise their constitutional rights.” They encouraged schools to help their athletes register to vote and to designate Nov. 3 as a day off from athletics activities.
Warren, the first black commissioner of a Power Five conference, introduced the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition two weeks ago. The conference announced Monday the members of the coalition, which includes more than 100 athletes, coaches and administrators from the 14 universities, as well as numerous individuals from the conference office, the Big Ten Network, former Big Ten athletes and other partners. The coalition will continue to grow.
“I am thankful to have been nominated for such an incredible union,” Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner, a member of the coalition, said in a statement. “I am an agent of change and will use my platform to create real change in this country. I am very motivated and dedicated to progressing my people, BLACK people.”
Warren previously spent 15 years with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, most recently as chief operating officer. He and his wife still have a home in Minneapolis and that’s where they raised their two children, so Floyd’s death resonated with him. During the civil rights movement, his father, Morrison Warren, served as a member of the Phoenix City Council beginning in 1965 and as vice mayor in 1969. Kevin Warren was a young child at the time.
Warren calls this moment an “inflection point in our society.” Thousands of people, including some college athletes and coaches, have flooded the streets pleading for change. Warren hopes that in looking back at this year, Big Ten athletes and leaders will have played a role in working toward a solution.
“I’m probably the most encouraged I have been in regard to an opportunity to build a better world for the future,” Warren said. “I know these issues have existed from my first memories as a child. But this is the first time that I believe that we as a country are in a position where we cannot ignore these issues any longer.”
Minnesota athletes volunteered in the Minneapolis community. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh walked with some of his players in a peaceful protest. Maryland’s football players pledged to vote and to begin a community service project in which they help promote voter registration in underserved areas of the community.
“We have an incredible constituency of young people,” Warren said. “And we want to provide every resource to make enduring and lasting change in this country and around the world.”