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How the Big Ten is making mental health a growing priority

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is taking the lead on mental health and making mindfulness for student-athletes a priority. Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren speaks of mental fitness with the intent and enthusiasm of a motivational speaker. The message is powerful -- the message inherent in his decision to deliver it even more so. The first major public initiative of Warren's tenure as only the sixth Big Ten Conference commissioner is directed toward neither money nor academics, the poles that hold up the intercollegiate athletic tent.

It is the Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet, a group of 31 experts gathered from the league's 14 institutions, plus affiliate members Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame.

"This was one of my key pillars, even when I interviewed for the job," Warren said. "We just want to empower our student-athletes. This is all about the student-athletes, to tell how much we love, admire, respect, appreciate them, to give them the resources, that we're here, they can talk about it."

The conference that gave us the Ten-Year War, that produced Bob Knight and Herb Brooks, is now promoting mindfulness. And not without reason. The scourge of mental illness on American campuses has not spared student-athletes. Take the maelstrom of growing up in the social media age, blend in self-images that equate competitive failure with personal worth, and add relentless demands on time and energy.

The issues are not unique to the Big Ten. It may not be the death knell for the win-at-all-cost ethic that has defined American sports since Red Grange was in knee pants. But the campaign to champion mental fitness is a more tangible, less cynical reminder of the difference between intercollegiate athletics and the pros. The student-athletes whom we celebrate are not yet grown men and women.

In loco parentis, a phrase meaning "in the role of a parent," once was applied universally to colleges. The actions that universities took in loco parentis had a more disciplinary cant, such as single-sex dorms or curfews. The Big Ten mental fitness campaign hearkens to those simpler times, but with a motivation more compassionate than disciplinary.

Warren recalls what it is like to be young and adrift. He saw it among his fellow student-athletes when he played basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon. Actually, he experienced it long before he went to college. An automobile struck 11-year-old Kevin Warren when he was riding his bicycle.

He spent six weeks in the hospital. He spent seven months in a body cast.

"Not one time did anyone talk to me about my mental health, how did I feel," Warren said. "My sister stayed at the hospital many nights with me... She was telling me recently that I was having these night terrors throughout the night. I was just in the hospital, would scream at a level, they were so concerned. Even then, I never met with a mental health professional."

A generation later, there hasn't been enough change. Warren's son Powers plays football at Mississippi State.

I've heard too many stories of my son's friends, of college athletes around the country who've had issues," Warren said, "who've raised their hand, who sought out help on campus, and they were told, 'We can get you in six weeks from now.' We can't have 'six weeks.' You might as well tell someone, 'Call me in a year.' That can't happen."

The ubiquity of the Calm app, waiting when needed on a phone, will solve that issue, or at least provide a bandage until the psychic wound is tended. The conference purchased the use of the app for all 9,600 of its student-athletes, as well as league coaches and administrative personnel.

That isn't the cabinet's only strategy, just the first. There are plans afoot for a newsletter. Warren is smitten by the Bandana Project on the Wisconsin campus. Students with green bandanas tied to their backpacks are trained in the knowledge of mental health resources available on campus. The green bandana signifies not only a resource, but unspoken support. Warren learned about it in a cabinet session.

"We're all doing great work," Warren said of his league's institutions. "But we were doing them in silos. Now we're able to collaborate with each other, come up with best practices."

In the intercollegiate athletic world where so much is measured by money or metric, Warren said there are no such milestones for mental fitness. No one will be monitoring how many gymnasts or swimmers or tight ends use their Calm app. "It would be worth it if one person said, 'You stopped and made me think. You stopped and made me recognize that maybe I do need to go get some help,'" Warren said.

As intercollegiate athletics gropes its way blindly through the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Ten is seeing how its student-athletes and coaches really live. The conference once known for "three yards and a cloud of dust" has modernized its approach. The Big Ten hopes to learn how to be present.