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A guide to Big Ten football sources & power in the age of COVID

Or, how to understand that not everything is Kevin Warren’s fault.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 24 Big Ten Football Media Days Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There has been a flurry in recent news regarding the Big Ten, the delayed football season, and what comes next. A lot of the information can be contradictory, a situation that hasn’t been helped by the Big Ten’s choice to keep pretty quiet about the full reasons/process behind the decision to forgo a fall season.

The thing that seems to trip folks up when reading the news right now is who is likely speaking when reporters talk about sources and who is really making the decisions right now in the Big Ten. It’s why we called out that the rumors about Thanksgiving football were likely coming from coaches or administrators. But confusion on this topic is still widespread, so I wanted to take a moment to outline the key actors in this very public drama and identify which ones have the power to decide what happens to Big Ten Football in the age of COVID.

The people who have no power and don’t make COVID decisions

The coaches: We live in a world where we’re used to the head football coach at a school having a lot (honestly, too much) power. That doesn’t apply during COVID. The coaches never wanted to postpone. Some might have had reservations and wanted to see the plans for playing have some details added, but this is group that lives and breathes football. Those who disagree with the decision not to play (which 100% includes Ryan Day, Scott Frost, and Kirk Ferentz) are also a group that feels comfortable speaking anonymously to media across the B1G and the nation. Bottom line? A lot of the rumors you’re hearing are leaked by coaches with an agenda who are also dealing with being told to sit down and be quiet for the first time in forever.

AD’s/assistant AD’s/etc: See what I wrote about the coaches, but add in a whole lot of concerns about budget shortfalls and cuts and TV money and donations and ticket sales and OMG I really don’t envy the leadership in any college athletics department this fall. Bottom line? Still don’t make the decisions on whether there is football anytime soon (or ever). May have slightly more pull than the coaches with their president depending on how their school’s president views the finances of doom predictions their AD put together.

The media: There are a number of media folks who are doing pretty well with this mess. Most of them work at The Athletic. The media doesn’t have any power to change the decision, but they do have power to create the public perception of what’s happened. And on this front many (*MANY*) media members have fallen into one of two traps.

First, they uncritically regurgitate the leaks they get from the coaches/AD staffs. This means average fans who aren’t aware of what I just wrote above start thinking the conference has gone completely schizophrenic and is changing it’s mind every day about what to do. I mean, in some senses that isn’t wrong (WTH was with releasing a schedule and then canceling the season Big Ten presidents?). But it’s safe to assume that most “per sources” things you read on Twitter or elsewhere aren’t coming from the Big Ten presidents, Kevin Warren, or the conference offices. Why? First, because they don’t want to talk about this stuff. And second, when they do the reporters quoting them anonymously tend to use language like “sources in the Big Ten offices” or the like and you don’t see that much.

The second problem for many in the media is that they don’t do what I just did. Explain who actually has the power to make the decisions and give their “scoops” context by reminding readers/listeners/viewers that unless NEW DETAIL #72 changes the minds of the presidents, nothing changes for Big Ten Football. Bottom line: Unless the information delivered is quoting Kevin Warren, other Big Ten leadership, or a college president who isn’t from Nebraska (because that whole leadership structure is off their rockers) just assume the information you’ve got is from someone who is talking about what they WANT, not what they know will happen.

The players. The players have more power than ever and they’ve started to exercise it. Their media platform and public presence can help make change on racial justice issues and can raise the profile of issues (including but going far beyond racial justice) when they speak out. Bottom line: Their newfound power won’t get football back, because everyone knows they want to play and they can’t sit out to restart a season.

The families of players. Ugh. There is nothing sillier than the parents of legally emancipated and independent adults acting like their throwing a hissy fit through a form letter and a protest outside the Fogo de Chao in Rosemont, IL matters. It doesn’t. Bottom line: Please go away.

The online petition signers. Look, you’re not getting your quarter zips.

The person who has a little power but much less than you think and who isn’t making COVID decisions

Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. This one may come as a shock to those of you who think Kevin Warren is the bogeyman of this story. That he’s the thing standing between you the fan and watching college football this fall. That Jim Delany should come back and save us all. Sorry. Nope. Not true. Kevin Warren (and Jim Delany before him) are the Roger Goodell’s of this story. They are the paid face for the “ownership” in the Big Ten, the Big Ten school presidents. When it comes down to it, the presidents call the shots. If the Big Ten presidents hadn’t wanted to add Rutgers and Maryland, it wouldn’t matter how much Delany pounded on the table. That’s not to say there isn’t a role for the B1G commish in deal making and PR and everything else. That’s literally the job description. It’s not a purely figurehead role. Bottom line: Kevin Warren (and all before him) don’t make the final call on foundational issues like COVID and they never have.

The *ONLY* people who make the decisions on COVID

The Big Ten university presidents. Here’s the list of the only 14 people who truly matter in the age of COVID:

11 of these folks (the leaders of the schools not named Iowa, Nebraska, or Ohio State) decided that for a variety of COVID related reasons they weren’t comfortable having football played in the Big Ten this fall. There were multiple reasons but the 3 main ones I’ve seen reported are:

  1. access to enough reliable tests that could be resulted quickly
  2. the ability to contact trace positive test results across their student populations and more widely (if needed)
  3. a significant concern about the unknown long term effects of a positive COVID diagnosis (particularly when it comes to cardiac health) even on young adults who may be asymptomatic

It’s important to keep these in mind, because to get football there must be either A) solutions to these concerns that convince at least 6 Big Ten presidents to change their votes or B) the presidents just decide to ignore their previously published logic. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for B.

Until these folks decide with a supermajority of 60% (i.e. 9 votes) in favor of playing football, there will be no football. It doesn’t matter how many very detailed plans get floated or how many testing breakthroughs are announced. Until 9 Big Ten presidents decide they’re comfortable there is no B1G season.


  • Remember that EVERYONE wants to play, but that the conditions under which they’re comfortable with that outcome differs.
  • Think critically about whether the newest rumor or plan represents what a coach or administrator would want.
  • Evaluate the content of the news in the context of the 3 major health concerns publicized by the Big Ten on behalf of the presidents.
  • Prioritize statements by actual Big Ten presidents on the record over almost everything (while recognizing the biases/motivations of schools who already voted to keep playing)
  • Ignore anyone who blames everything on Kevin Warren.