Editor’s note: This article is part of Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It is, in part, born out of our Democracy SOS fellowship, where we are one of 21 newsrooms across the country reimagining how media reports on critical issues facing our democracy. 

At a time of displeasure with the two-party political system, the Great Resignation, debates about the future of work, and the reality that the American Dream is out of reach for too many of us and the next generation, it’s clear labor organizing is a topic worth reporting. 

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College football players face a lot of problems. They risk major injuries while juggling classes with intense practice and workout schedules—and they don’t get paid for working almost year-round to create the product that is college football. 

Jason Stahl started the College Football Players Association just over a year ago with the ambitious goal of organizing college players nationally to address these problems. “This is a cause that’s near and dear to my heart – in part, because I feel like the realities of the harm to the lives of young men through the sport of college football have been largely ignored,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle

Stahl, a former organizational leadership professor at the University of Minnesota, wants to educate players and the public alike on the inner workings of college football, so “people understand what’s happening to individual college football players and how to, hopefully, reform the game.”

Giving players a collective voice that they can use to advocate for change – at both the conference level and their own schools – is the way to do that, he believes, which prompted him to start his nonprofit in July 2021.

Stahl has assembled a leadership committee of current and former college football players, which unveiled its Platform for Change in May. The three initial planks advocate for independent medical care, healthier practices, and post-football health protections. The nascent players association released three additional demands in July: a share of media rights revenue for the players, a longer offseason, and CFBPA representation at the bargaining tables of college football.

Stahl’s efforts to recruit players unexpectedly thrust CFBPA in the media spotlight in July after a visit to Penn State University, a Power Five football school in the Big Ten Conference. He made the trip to talk with the players, whom he was lobbying to join his group, about what changes they wanted to see, with the aim of presenting their top demands to the Big Ten. During an eight-day visit, Stahl recruited several players as members – but then a secret meeting with the whole team was discovered by a coach on July 14.

Stahl’s visit arose from talks about joining the CFBPA with quarterback Sean Clifford, who’d been leading the charge to organize his teammates. But after the meeting’s discovery, Clifford decided to work for change within his university and the Big Ten instead.

Stahl subsequently released the players’ top three demands to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and sports media for: a percentage of media rights revenue for players, post-football health protections, and independent medical care. That led to a one-hour call with Warren in late July.

It was Stahl’s work at the University of Minnesota, where he directed an undergraduate first year experience program that turned him into an activist for college players. Stahl started building relationships with the players he taught in 2014, while working on a book about the true lives of college football players with the working title, Exploit U: The Secret Underworld of College Football. He became an advocate for them after hearing their reports of what he called a “toxic workplace” under new head football coach P. J. Fleck in 2017.

But Stahl said his player advocacy caused friction with university management, ultimately prompting his resignation in 2020. Stahl made multiple internal reports on his concerns about a toxic training culture that overworked players and coaches, limited free speech, and fostered mistrust. His reports alleging NCAA violations eventually reached the university’s athletic compliance director, Jeremiah Carter, but the issue was later dropped when Stahl’s player source would not come forward.

Stahl claims that his activism caused then-Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Michael Rodriguez in 2020 to remove him from his role directing the first-year experience program and caused the dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Jean Quam, to cancel a three-year work agreement negotiated in 2018. Quam did not respond to a request for comment.

“I want to be clear: I was not fired,” Stahl said. “I was essentially demoted back to the position that I had held 10 years previously. That was unacceptable to me, so I resigned.”

Stahl spoke with Atlanta Civic Circle about what he hopes to accomplish through his fledgling players association. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Christian Knox: You started the CFBPA just over a year ago, putting together a board, a leadership committee, and then releasing your six Platform for Change planks earlier this summer. Where is your focus as you enter phase two?

Jason Stahl: What we’re going to be doing in season – starting here in August when fall camp is going on – is threefold. First and foremost, build the membership base, particularly among current players. That’s why we dropped dues to $1 a year, because we really just need to add guys. 

We realized being out at Penn State, once guys find out who we are, the concept works. People don’t understand that in big-time college football programs, the players themselves are kept in black boxes where they have very little interaction with the campus–particularly now that so many courses are online after COVID.

Number two is education. There’s so much educating that needs to be done about who we are, what we’re trying to do – but also the realities of the workplace. 

Number three is fundraising for both of those initiatives. I think the fundraising is going to become a lot easier now than it was in year one, for sure. We’re raising money now, because we’ve been able to identify the first position we need beyond mine – a membership director. We also need somebody who can provide good education to our members.

Why is that?

First and foremost we were a new organization that was trying to do something that truly had never been done before. We’re trying to build a new institution from scratch.

We needed to prove to donors that we were capable of doing something like we just did [at Penn State]. Now, it didn’t go the way we had planned, but I do think it’s now shown to the world – all prospective donors of course being at the top of the list – that we can accomplish something with very limited resources. Think of what we could accomplish if we had even more.

How is player recruitment going? 

The biggest thing we think is inhibiting our success is our ability to reach current college football players, to let them know what we’re doing, to let them know how they can get involved, and to let them know the circumstances of their own industry.

We are remote right now. Our two leadership teams [the board and the leadership committee] are basically spread all over the country in four time zones. Hopefully that changes this year.

You started the CFBPA to organize players and give them a collective voice. Do you want to form a union, like the NFL Players Association? 

We are a trade association that seeks to bring together past, present, and future college football players into a new institution that attempts to build a national community of people who have the common interests in mind of reforming the game.

When it comes to the Power Five programs, that’s the route [a union] we’re gonna have to go for sure. I really do feel like we had our hand outstretched. But, we’re a players association for college football players nationwide–no matter what program they play at.

The vision of a union that undertakes legally binding collective bargaining – of course we are willing, and we’ll be able to do that when the time comes. But that is an extraordinarily limited vision on what an institution [like CFBPA] can accomplish.

Are you just releasing demands at this point, or have you considered any kind of collective action?

Any withholding of labor in whatever form that would take, you have to build strength first before you could do something like that. No one [at other college players’ associations springing up] is at the point of having guys effectively organized to withhold their labor – us included. No one else is even close.

But before you heighten the tensions in any kind of way on the front end – whether it’s official unionization or striking or withholding labor – before that, you see where people are willing to meet you, and you try to raise the tension on them in different ways to bring them to the table.

The Big Ten decided not to invite you to their Big Ten Media Days after all. What kind of response is your Platform for Change getting from college football fans after all the publicity around your meeting with the Penn State players?

I think fans, after [players became able to profit off of their name, image and likeness], have just accepted that the game is going to change, and most are embracing it. 

I think the Penn State fans were sort of like, ‘Well, this is cool. Our quarterback is trying to be the new leader of this movement.’ They were a little caught off guard when [Clifford] did an about-face. I really do wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t done that, because I do think that the vast majority of people are with us. I really do believe that.

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