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New Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren on the definition of 'amateurism' and how it's evolving. Hear what he says in Iowa City: Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — New Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren said Friday that he’s committed to preserving a century-old definition of amateurism, while acknowledging that college athletics is increasingly becoming a more complex business.

Warren said college athletes he’s spoken to largely agree with the need to maintain an amateur sports model.

In his 47th day in office, Warren, 56, paid his first visit to the University of Iowa campus, meeting with athletes, coaches and administrators. His ambitious goal is to not only visit all 14 Big Ten institutions, but to witness the league's 350 sports teams in action to get a feel for what’s entailed in his new job.

Warren spoke with reporters for about 30 minutes and made it clear, without offering any specifics, that he expects the Big Ten to be at the forefront of issues that promise to shape the direction of college athletics for decades to come.

Included is the movement to allow college athletes, for the first time, to benefit financially from the use of their names, images and likenesses. Warren said he is worried about a “quick fix.”

“So many people have said, 'Well, just pay them money,'” Warren said. “Payment of money creates all kind of different issues that we need to make sure we talk about. Are agents involved? Are they not? Are they taxed? Are they not? If they're paid too much, does it impact their Pell grant? What happens from a trademark standpoint?”

That effort includes a Big Ten proposal that is gaining steam nationwide under which any athlete in any sport can transfer to a new school one time without having to sit out from competition for a season. Warren said the vagaries involved with issuing waivers for some athletes, but not others, under the current model bother him.

“I'm a big believer that student-athletes should have an opportunity, one time, without any excuses, to be able to say I want to transfer,” Warren said. “If you want to do it again, then you need to make sure that you do sit out.”

An Arizona native who played college basketball at Penn before transferring to Grand Canyon, Warren is a lawyer by trade. But he also spent two decades working in the front offices of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings before being tapped to succeed Jim Delany as Big Ten commissioner. He is only the sixth leader of the league that was founded in 1896, and the first African-American to be at the helm of any major-college conference.

Warren cited TV revenues, sponsorship opportunities, ticket prices and the hours athletes must spend training when saying that the notion of “amateurism” needs to evolve to keep up with the modern reality.

But he also said it was his duty to adhere to the core tenets upon which the Big Ten was founded.

“To provide individuals an opportunity to get a world-class education and also participate in intercollegiate athletics governed by certain rules of fair play, equity and inclusion,” Warren said.

“We have an opportunity to redefine maybe the rules, the rules of engagement, the rules of operation. And what's so exciting about that, our decisions that we're going to make here, that we've already started to make, will impact the game of intercollegiate athletics for the next 50 to 100 years.”

Warren pushes for more access to mental health counselors for athletes

Warren relayed a personal story from his childhood when asked why he has made athletes’ mental health one of his main priorities as Big Ten commissioner. He spent weeks in the hospital after surviving a car crash at age 11, screaming in his sleep from nightmares, but never met with a counselor to address that side of his recovery.

His goal is “to come up with the most comprehensive, holistic mental health and wellness platform ever in the history of college sports.

“I look at this as an opportunity for the Big Ten and intercollegiate athletics, for us to save lives,” Warren said. “I guarantee you there are people on campuses in our Big Ten institutions who are struggling with mental health and wellness. … What we need to do is make sure we're creating an environment for our student-athlete to be taken care of the same way we would do if they were a family member of ours.”

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Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren says most college athletes he's spoken to appreciate their station in life. Listen: Hawk Central

Warren supports nine-game league schedule and occasional Friday games

Warren won’t push Big Ten football teams away from a nine-game league schedule, or from playing a few of those games on Friday nights. Some major conferences only play eight games each season against their league rivals, and there is a thought that that hurts the Big Ten when it comes time to choose the four teams who will play for a national championship.

“We have very tough, physical teams who have done well during the season, who have done well in the playoffs,” Warren said.

“I'm comfortable with a nine-game schedule. And I think when we take a broader look, over a 20-year period, we'll be satisfied with the number of national championships that we'll win, the number of bowls that we'll win, the number of student-athletes that we graduate.”

As for playing games on Friday nights, which are traditionally reserved for high school competition, Warren said he supports it as long as it only happens two or three times a season and not every week.

“We're focused on our games on Friday nights for us to do it in a matter that will add and promote overall football,” he said.

A shoutout to — and from — Hawkeyes basketball coach Fran McCaffery

Warren went to Penn as a 17-year-old freshman in 1981 and quickly fell under the tutelage of a senior point guard on that Quakers squad. That was Fran McCaffery, who currently coaches the Hawkeyes.

“He was a point guard both on and off the court,” Warren said of McCaffery. “And I say sincerely, I learned more about basketball from him than any other coach who I'd previously had, and he took time and energy and effort to mentor me and I will be forever grateful for that.”

On Wednesday, McCaffery said he always sensed that Warren would be successful, both because of his intelligence and his personality.

“When that decision was made, I thought what a great move by our league,” McCaffery said of Warren’s appointment.

“Jim Delany's — that's tough shoes to fill, but they got the right guy to do it.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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