We are five months away from what promises to be one of the most divisive, emotionally charged and compelling presidential elections in American history. The confluence of a pandemic, the long-overdue push for racial equality and country’s fraught partisan political lines have set the most volatile backdrop to any election of this generation.
There’s a good chance that the next leader of the United States will emerge from voters in swing states in the Big Ten Conference’s footprint. Five states that President Donald Trump won in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa – were democratic states when Barack Obama won the election in 2012.
First-year Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has made it a priority that the conference’s nearly 10,000 athletes will have a say in that election. Warren is in just his fifth month in charge of the 14-member league, and he’s made it clear with his early actions that social change will be among the league’s priorities. The Big Ten announced a league-wide voter registration initiative on Monday, which will include non-partisan education and a deeper understanding of registration, voting and voter suppression.
“From a social change standpoint, I think our biggest asset is our right to vote and to be an educated voter,” Warren told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Sunday. “It’s important, not only from national politics, but from local politics. Who is on your school board? Who is your local sheriff? Who is your district attorney? Who is your attorney general? Who are your judges? All those different things really mean something.”
Warren, 56, came to the Big Ten from the Minnesota Vikings’ front office. He’s arguably the most influential and powerful minority in all of college athletics. And his early actions from the Big Ten chair portend that he can become one of the most influential leaders in all of college athletics, which glaringly lacks diversity in leadership and coaching positions.
Conference commissioners are generally judged by television revenue, the success of their conference TV network and the national titles won in major sports on their watch. For much of the last generation, those offices have been held by exorbitantly paid white executives who’ve attempted to generally lay low, keep the cash flowing and stay defiantly bland while pleasing college presidents. (And, of course, they make up to $5.5 million doing it.)
Warren’s early entrée into college sports has been both eye-opening and energizing. On Monday, the league announced the dozens of coaches, athletes and administrators that will make up the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, which will include Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State sophomore defensive lineman Zach Harrison. There are plenty of other boldface names, including Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard, Maryland football coach Mike Locksley and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
The overwhelming response to join the coalition reaffirmed Warren’s resolve in creating it.
“As a conference, we have a platform,” Warren said. “I think we have a responsibility. We have a mechanism to pull people together. The hate that we have in our communities and the racism that’s occurred, it can’t go on any longer.”
The league added the announcement of the voting initiative on Monday under the umbrella of the coalition. The genesis of the voting idea came from the Warren family dinner table. Warren’s son, Powers, is a redshirt junior tight end at Mississippi State. And many of the basic tenets of change Warren wants to bring to the Big Ten came from listening to his son and his friends, student-athletes of every gender, race and financial background. They included the mental health initiative the Big Ten already introduced, a push for better financial literacy and the voting initiative. “This is something that was in my interview materials back in April [of 2019],” Warren said. “This is not a reaction.”
Warren doesn’t know how many of the league’s nearly 10,000 athletes are already registered to vote. Nor does he know how many voted in the 2016 election or the 2018 midterms. But he’s eager to start a database, push for better education and provide resources to empower athletes around the Big Ten to vote. (The 18-to-29-year-old age demographic voted at the lowest participation percentage of any age range in the 2016 election.)
“If one person registers to vote who wasn’t planning on it, this is all worth it,” Warren said. “I’m a big believer in the power of one. One vote matters. One heart that’s changed matters.”
Warren was devastated by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And in the wake of that killing, he’s made clear he’s prioritizing transformation from “the systemic issues regarding racism and hate” in the country. “I think we hit rock bottom on some of these political and social issues,” he said. “The only way we can go is up.”
And voting is a baseline place to start. There are 10,000 athletes, many of whom are viewed as influencers to their roommates, classmates and both college and local communities where they’re from. Could their registration create a chain reaction that pushes the voter participation numbers up even higher? Could it be enough to impact local elections? Maybe the presidential election? Or plant the seeds for a lifetime of consistent voter habits to impact future elections?
Kevin Warren doesn’t quite know what the reverberations will be from this Big Ten voter registration push. But he’s eager to see the potential.
“I want make sure I do what I can to create that environment … to really work together to change the world,” Warren said. “Sports is a powerful conduit for change.”
And as a new powerful voice in the sports world, Kevin Warren is making sure that he and the Big Ten are part of that change.
More from Yahoo Sports: