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Editor’s note: This article is part of Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s born, in part, 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.
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The college football landscape has shifted into a new era of lucrative player opportunities: amateur college players can now profit from name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, and players have increased freedom to transfer universities in search of greener pastures.
But players are also struggling with a lot of hardships, from health and safety risks to working full time at playing the game for little more than free tuition. What’s more, it can be difficult for individual players to speak out about problems in their workplace for fear of retaliation from coaches.
To improve conditions for the players, former University of Minnesota professor Jason Stahl started the College Football Players Association just over a year ago to give them a collective voice and the power to advocate for change. An attempt to organize the Penn State University team this summer derailed at the last minute, but it attracted national media attention and a phone call for Stahl with Big 10 Conference’s commissioner, Kevin Warren, about the reforms his group is calling for.
The CFBPA released its first three Platform for Change demands around player health in May, calling for independent medical care for players, post-football health protections, and healthier practices similar to those in the NFL and Ivy League. The nonprofit released additional demands in July: a percentage of media rights revenue for players, a real offseason, and CFBPA representatives at the bargaining tables of college football.
With the release of the six Platform for Change reform demands this summer, Stahl said, the CFBPA is entering its second phase – fundraising, player recruitment, and educating high school and college players about the inner workings of college football.
“What I found over year one, and particularly at Penn State, is current college football players really are not informed regarding the realities of their workplace. … Policy changes, new media rights contracts, they know none of it,” Stahl said.
Stahl, who serves as the CFBPA’s executive director, put together a leadership committee of six former players – Troy Reddick, Tremayne Anchrum, Alonzo Craighton, Justin Falcinelli, Edwin Garrett, and Jordan Meachum – to develop the Platform for Change. In June, the leadership committee added its first college player, Kassidy Woods.
The wide receiver at the University of Northern Colorado was one of the founding members of the Pac-12 WeAreUnited movement in the summer of 2020, which formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to advocate for health and safety protections for players. Stahl said in the announcement about Woods that the short-lived movement inspired him to make a players association a reality.
Reddick’s college career
Reddick, who played at Auburn University from 2002 to 2005, said he joined the leadership committee because he believes in the CFBPA mission and sees it as an opportunity to connect with players.
“The players need someone who is a part of each decision-making process,” Reddick said, referring to college conferences, individual colleges, and the NCAA. “If you’re making decisions that affect the wellbeing of the players, they should have some form of representation, whether elected or appointed.”
Reddick said he experienced his own hardships as a college player – and through the CFBPA he wants to help the current generation of players secure better treatment. The former Auburn player said he struggled to juggle his football workouts with a full course load the summer before his senior year.
When his course schedule prevented him from making practices or voluntary training, he was put through tough makeup workouts–even though he he had his own workout regimen. That felt punitive, he said, recalling his reaction at the time: “I have my own workout deal, I’ve been doing it since I got [to Auburn], and my body doesn’t look as good as it did when I got here – so whatever y’all are doing doesn’t work.”
Reddick emphasized how important health care is for players in such a grueling, physical sport. After a medical review following his retirement from the NFL, one of Reddick’s former teammates received a settlement offer for either extended health care or money. He chose the health care.
“The funds were not that important, but the long-term care was,” Reddick said. “So, if it’s worth that much to a millionaire, how much is it to a guy who played college football and works in a warehouse or medical sales?”
Not a union – yet
The CFBPA is a trade association, not a union – for now at least, Stahl said. He first wants to try negotiating with conferences and universities to achieve its Platform for Change demands without that threat.
To do that, Stahl, Reddick and other leadership committee members are working to recruit past, present, and future college football players nationally to gain the critical mass and legitimacy for a seat at the bargaining tables governing college football.
Stahl is confident that college players will be receptive to the CFBPA’s reform ideas – but first the group has to reach them. “The biggest thing that we think is inhibiting our success is our ability to reach current college football players,” Stahl said, to “let them know what we’re doing, let them know how they can get involved, and let them know the circumstances of their own industry.”
The CFBPA had hoped to organize a Penn State University chapter this summer and “bring the leadership of the Big Ten [Conference] to the bargaining table,” Stahl said, after one of its members introduced him to the team’s quarterback, Sean Clifford.
In early July, Stahl spent eight days meeting with Penn State players. Along with leadership committee member Justice Falcinelli, they developed their top three demands: media revenue for players, post-football health protections, and independent medical care.
“We want to keep things as simple as possible,” Stahl said. “Let’s do three things that we think can be addressed either at the institutional level within Penn State, or at the conference level with the Big Ten.”
But a Penn State coach discovered Stahl during his final all-team meeting with the players, leading Clifford to withdraw his support, which sharply undercut recruitment momentum, Stahl said.
After learning CFBPA had met with the Penn State players, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren spoke with Clifford to get him to join an internal reform committee for the Big Ten, Stahl wrote.
“In the last 90 days, the CFBPA presented interesting ideas to me and my teammates with the goal of joining their college football players’ association. However, at this time, I, along with many players, are committed to working at the campus and conference level to address the complexities of college athletics for student athletes,” Clifford tweeted July 22.
The CFBPA’s membership spiked while organizing the Penn State players ,but plummeted after Clifford distanced himself, Stahl said. He declined to supply current membership numbers at this time.
Heading into the college football season, the CFBPA is stepping up its efforts to recruit and educate players. To do that, it needs to increase fundraising, Stahl said, after what he called modest success in its first year.
The players association receives some revenue from membership fees, but most comes from donors. “I do think we needed to prove to donors that we were capable of doing something like we just did [at Penn State],” he said.
“Now, it didn’t go the way we had planned, but I do think it’s 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,” Stahl said.
THE CFBPA’s PLATFORM FOR CHANGE
Independent medical care
Players need medical care from a health professional who is not employed by their colleges, said Stahl, because they are often pushed back onto the field after an injury before they are completely healthy.
Their trainers see the head coach as their boss, and succumb to pressure to get players back in action as soon as possible, he explained. “That has to end,” Stahl said. “The bodies and minds of young men are being destroyed on college campuses because they do not have independent medical care on football teams.”
The CFBPA wants all colleges to adopt practice guidelines similar to those of the NFL and the Ivy League, which limit physical contact between players, that would be enforced by a CFBPA representative.
Stahl has expressed concerns in his Substack newsletter about players practicing together during COVID-19, as well as concussions, other injuries – and even deaths to players during offseason practices and weight room training.
Post-football health protections
The CFBPA aims to secure post-college medical care for players’ football-related injuries for a set number of years that is still open to negotiation.
Football injuries can cause lasting damage to players’ bodies that linger years after they hang up their cleats. Players are also at high risk for severe concussions causing permanent brain injury. “We have to talk about longer-term concussion care, because brain injuries can really last many years and decades,” Stahl said.
Media rights revenue for players
The Power Five conference schools rake in millions of dollars each year, but the players on the field remain uncompensated because of their amateur status. “Given that the Big Ten, for instance, is about to triple their media rights revenue, the idea that they’re not going to pay their players some sort of basic living wage is absurd,” Stahl said.
Front Office Sports reported last week that the Big Ten is hoping for $1.5 billion annually from a new media rights deal, up from $440 million under the conference’s current deal.
The CFBPA is keeping its revenue-sharing demand open-ended for now, to allow for debate and negotiation. “You wouldn’t be able to determine what you want from [a revenue sharing deal] unless you know what the pot is,” Reddick explained.
A real off-season
College football right now is nearly a year-round commitment, between the football season, training camps, and offseason workouts, so the players association wants to secure a real offseason.
Penn State players only get two weeks off per year, said Stahl, who thinks it should be at least a month. “It’s unacceptable that these guys are working 11 ½ months out of the year, so it’s got to be dialed back. Sure, [they also need to] focus on their studies, but how about some leisure time?” he said.
Player reps at the table
The CFBPA wants to have a representative present at all negotiations about changes to college football.
College players need their own representatives at every bargaining table in the sport to protect their interests, Stahl said. “The bargaining tables are everywhere, because the powers that be are everywhere. They’re at the member institutions, they’re at the conferences, and I think, to a lesser extent, they’re at the NCAA.”
Down the road, the CFBPA wants to install full-time employees within whatever college football program will accept them, to ensure they follow the rules, he added.
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