Kevin Warren spoke extemporaneously, and with passion.
He made eye contact and called people by name.
He championed students, women and minorities.
He is a big-league athletic commissioner with the common touch, which might make him one of a kind.
Most commissioners of moneymaking sports leagues have two primary jobs: Protecting the rich, and making them richer. Warren, after 55 days as the Big Ten Conference commissioner, is approaching his new job the way he approached his previous jobs.
When he worked for the Vikings, Warren was known for donating copious amounts of money and time to charities, even cleaning tables himself. As Big Ten commissioner, he promises to work on behalf of students, and women and minorities who want to rise through the coaching and administrative ranks.
He is the first person of color to become commissioner of a major sports league in America. With the Vikings, he became the highest-ranking business-side executive of color in the NFL.
“First and foremost is making sure that our student-athletes are at the center of all of our decisions,’’ Warren said. “We’re in the process of working on the most comprehensive mental health and wellness platform, to make sure that we really educate and embrace and empower our student-athletes.
“Secondly, we’re working on voter registration to make sure that everyone who wants to be registered to vote has that opportunity. And then we also want to make sure that they’re financially literate, so we’re working on financial literacy platforms. All of these thing will start to get rolled out at some point during the summer, and especially as we go into the fall semester.’’
Warren held a news conference at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday. He is in the midst of a trip through the conference, making 14 “town hall’’ stops while promising to see all 350 teams competing under the Big Ten umbrella.
If I hadn’t gotten to know Warren when he was with the Vikings, I’d be surprised by his approach. Most commissioners serve at the pleasure and for the pleasure of their bosses, sometimes demeaning themselves in the process.
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has spent the past month embarrassing himself. Manfred referred to baseball’s Commissioner’s Trophy, which is awarded to the World Series winner, as “a piece of metal.’’ Of all the mistakes modern commissioners have made, none has been so silly as to demean their own symbols.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s primary role as caretaker of the most successful sports league in American history has been to prove he is a poor communicator while taking a beating on behalf of his employers.
The public too often assumes that commissioners are in place to safeguard the traditions of a sport. They’re not. They’re in place to make money and protect their constituents. Goodell is a human shield constructed of gold doubloons.
Manfred has overseen progress in baseball. He has also demonstrated that he is ill-equipped to handle the Astros’ cheating scandal.
I will admit to some sympathy for his position. Bud Selig was often reviled as baseball commissioner because he was in charge during the steroid scandal and because he did the owners’ bidding. I’m not sure what he could have done differently.
Was Selig, as the owners’ representative, supposed to call an investigation into Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they rejuvenated the game in 1998?
The best way to judge a commissioner is by the progress he or she makes over time.
New WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert immediately reached a collective bargaining agreement with the players that led to the league’s first full-scale, full-of-hype free agency period.
When Selig became commissioner, baseball was a stagnant sport playing in mostly horrid stadiums. When he retired, baseball was open to change, and being staged in the most beautiful set of stadiums in any sport in the world. Selig was a master consensus-builder.
Warren promises to treat college students with respect, and he has proved, through his work with the Vikings and their construction of a state-of-the-art stadium and practice facility, that he knows how to navigate the financial world.
The Vikings’ loss is the Big Ten’s gain.