Here’s the thing that continues to baffle me about Kevin Warren
Up until Wednesday night, it had been a quiet week in the Big Ten. And that silence was deafening.
No, I’m not talking about Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren’s lack of ability to answer simple questions, like, “Why did you cancel the season?” That’s troubling behavior coming from a league commissioner, obviously, but it’s old news by now.
The silence I’m talking about is in the media, which all of a sudden wasn’t getting “scoops” from Big Ten “sources.” And by sources, I mean most likely Warren or people very close to him. The lack of leaks over the past week is extremely telling about the mess that Warren and the Big Ten created — and its inability to spin its way out of it. Warren had the power to shift the narrative with one phone call to one of his preferred national reporters, and he declined to do so. Instead, he let some of his most important programs trash him publicly and undermine any trust still left in what has become a very fractured relationship.
From a media perspective, this has been baffling. Warren went from talking to reporters anonymously (more than his own athletic directors and coaches, apparently) to going radio silent for over a week as the backlash built. Before Warren finally broke the silence Wednesday by doing an interview with Sports Business Journal, releasing an open letter and then doing interviews with a few national publications, he mishandled this situation in every way imaginable.
It’s hard to even look back that far right now, but flash back about 12 days ago, when the leaks were nonstop from the Big Ten. Warren’s office was feeding the likes of Pat Forde, Pete Thamel, Nicole Auerbach and Adam Rittenberg about his preference for a spring season — part of a wild weekend in which we went from analyzing the new B1G schedule to being on the brink of cancellation, which eventually happened early that next week. (I guess we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it was Warren doing the leaking, but who else could it have been?)
Those national reporters were merely doing their jobs and reporting what the Big Ten was thinking, so this is no slight at them. But make no mistake, those reporters didn’t randomly stumble upon that information about Warren moving toward postponing the season. That information is put out there intentionally by Warren’s team in order to convey a message to the public without his name attached to it. They were softening the blow for a decision that had probably been made days or even weeks before then.
That’s why it’s been fascinating to observe Warren take a collective beating this week from players, coaches and fans this week — who merely want answers — without a single leak to one of his preferred reporters. The national media had mostly focused on Nebraska in the aftermath of the Big Ten cancellation instead of Warren, but that began to shift just before Warren’s media tour Wednesday night. After using the media last week to share information, that well dried up. Without any new scoops, the media started to turn on him, so much so that even those formerly in his corner had started to ask, “What’s going on here?”
Even if Warren was afraid to attach his name to anything controversial — which he absolutely is, evident by his vague explanation in the Big Ten Network interview and Sports Business Journal interview he did Wednesday afternoon — he could have responded to some of the complaints by using the media like he did before. That’s been the strangest part of this whole ordeal, that Warren didn’t respond more emphatically.
Think about it: It wasn’t a coincidence that an explainer on myocarditis leaked on the eve of Warren’s announcement of a postponed season. That was a response to the many people wondering why the Big Ten was suddenly considering a postponement of the fall season. And it wasn’t a coincidence that a report from The Athletic detailing that potentially 10 Big Ten football players had myocarditis leaked right after the postponement announcement. All of this information being leaked at these exact times is a strategy.
So, isn’t it interesting that the next week featured almost no information from the Big Ten? And I’m not even talking about communication from the league to individual teams, which would have been helpful because it sure seemed like they had no idea how to proceed (James Franklin was the latest to publicly express his frustration). I’m talking about no leaks to the media to counter building narratives among the SEC, ACC and Big 12 that it’s safe to play.
A couple of damning stories came out earlier this week. The first was from a University of Michigan cardiologist who pushed back on the Journal of American Medical Association study frequently cited in the myocarditis discussion. The next was from a Mayo Clinic genetic cardiologist Michael Ackerman, who advised the Big 12 in its decision to proceed with football season and said that myocarditis was not a reason to cancel football.
“There’s just too many unknowns to say we have new damaging, alarming evidence that COVID-19 myocarditis is the big, bad spooky thing in town now, and we need to do something about it,” Ackerman said to AL.com. “Not new news at all; we’ve known that this virus can affect the heart muscle for 5 months now. It’s not new, it just got put forward in a new way, and it’s taken on a new life.”
It’s very surprising that Warren’s team didn’t leak something to try to combat the growing sentiment that the Big Ten made the wrong decision, especially as the outraged cries from players, coaches and parents grew louder by the day. The anger will continue as Warren’s son plays for Mississippi State this fall, despite Warren’s stance that it’s too dangerous for the Big Ten.
If Warren had a reasonable counter to any of those points, don’t you think he would have played his hand?
Warren released an open letter Wednesday, and it was mostly filled with the same generalities about “uncertainty” from his initial BTN interview. He did cite concerns about the transmission rate and inadequate testing, but this was not anywhere close to the level of detail that the Pac-12 released, nor did it refute any of the points being made by medical advisors to the SEC, Big 12 and ACC. It would have been nice to see Warren show his work a little bit instead of running off statistics of how many people have gotten the virus in the country and around the world. How is that relevant information? What about the recent breakthroughs in a saliva test that was FDA-approved? Why cite the student body returning to campus as a concern, when that was inevitable all along?
And why didn’t the Big Ten attempt to shift the conversation much sooner? All Warren had to do was release some sort of a plan for how the league would move forward, but he neglected to do that until he acknowledged the prospect of a winter season Wednesday night.
Then you have the presidents of these Big Ten schools — 13 of which are public, by the way — who are hiding behind Warren and not giving interviews to share what led to this unprecedented decision. It’s incredible that we still have no definitive answer on what the process was to cancel the season and whether there was actually a vote.
Have reached out to more than half of the Big Ten presidents and chancellors since the decision to postpone. Not one wants to comment. Understand it's a sensitive topic but also one that impacts a ton of people. And very few definitive answers or details have been given.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 18, 2020
Meanwhile, the frustration boiled over this week and it’s all coming to a head as Justin Fields started a petition to urge the B1G to reconsider its decision, and it garnered nearly 300,000 signatures in just a few days. Big Ten parents organized a peaceful protest for Friday outside B1G offices. That’s after parents from half of the conference’s teams sent letters to Warren requesting answers to their many questions about the abrupt cancellation of a fall season.
This week, it’s been obvious that Warren is a rookie commissioner who lacks the savvy of even his Pac-12 counterpart, Larry Scott. There’s no mutiny in the Pac 12, as they seem to be in lockstep. When you examine the way Warren handled this decision from a media perspective, it makes no sense. It’s actually only more confusing.
Warren finally got back to communicating through the media Wednesday. The main point of his letter was to try to end the uprising he’s facing and end talk of a fall season once and for all. You can see it reflected in the coverage, as Forde literally wrote a piece titled “The Time to Protest the Big Ten’s Decision is Over.”
Mission accomplished, from Warren’s perspective. A piece of advice for the next mutiny: Act a little sooner and save yourself and your conference a week’s worth of embarrassing headlines.