At the end of December, reports began to surface that Kevin Warren was likely to leave his post as Big Ten Commissioner to become the next President/CEO of the Chicago Bears. Those reports were proven correct this past week, creating a vacancy for one of college sports most powerful positions. Where the Big Ten goes from here will undoubtedly have a drastic impact on the future of the college sports landscape. Will they hire someone from within the college athletics or higher education space? Will they take the same approach they did with Warren and look outside the industry? What role will the new hire have in addressing the issues college athletics currently faces? All these questions have massive significance.
Say what you want about Kevin Warren’s three-year stint as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, but one thing you can’t say is that it was uneventful. On one hand, he was heavily criticized for initially canceling the 2020 football season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other, he acquired USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, stretching the conference’s footprint from coast to coast. Additionally, he inked a transformative media rights deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC, placing the Big Ten ahead of the SEC financially.
Warren undoubtedly had a clear vision for the Big Ten, but he won’t be around to execute it and see it through. That will be the responsibility of the next hire, which makes the conference’s search extremely important
Now that the media rights deal has been signed, the new commissioner’s first task will be onboarding USC and UCLA into the league in the summer of 2024. This process will be a lot harder than it seems at the surface due to the extensive nature of the Big Ten’s footprint. How the conference handles scheduling with member schools on opposite coasts will be interesting to watch. The “student-athlete experience” is something many athletic administrators reiterate, so how the conference can maximize it amid the obvious challenges will be paramount.
What will generate the most conversation around this hire, however, is the new commissioner’s stance on the overarching issues in college athletics. Over the course of Kevin Warren’s tenure in the commissioner’s office, we’ve seen the advent of NIL, the Transfer Portal, and booster-led collectives. In addition, the Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling in the Alston case opened the door for future litigation against the NCAA. Simply put, the Big Ten Commissioner job in 2023 is starkly different from what the Big Ten Commissioner job in 2020 was.
Legally, the NCAA’s model built on amateurism appears to be in serious jeopardy. Between the NRLB’s recent memo to House v. NCAA to Johnson v. NCAA, the writing appears on the wall that things won’t be like they used to be in the foreseeable future. The big question now is: what can be done about it? We’ve heard many administrators plead with Congress to provide some form of antitrust protection and a Federal NIL law, but many are skeptical they will come. It’s worth noting that the NCAA recently hired former Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker, to take over as President. In reading the tea leaves, it’s clear his political experience played a role in the Association’s hiring process.
So, the big question in the Big Ten Commissioner search is what kind of leader will the conference hire? One who is proactive and understands the inevitable reality? Or one who is beholden to the amateur model? The answer to this question likely won’t change the direction college sports are heading, but it will undoubtedly change how quickly we get there.
Whether or not college athletes become full-fledged employees is unknown and will likely be determined in the courts. But one thing is clear, the amateur model where college athletes are receiving zero compensation directly from their schools or conferences appears to be on thin ice. Hopefully, the new Big Ten Commissioner recognizes this and has a strong vision for the future. It’s worth noting that the hire will be made by the member schools, so it’s really up to them to decide.
At the end of the day, the Big Ten Commissioner role is one of (perhaps the most) powerful positions in all of college sports. But with great power comes great responsibility. It will be fascinating to see who ultimately gets the job.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5