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As of right this second, there isn't really a strong institutional voice that really speaks for college athletes.
There's the NCAA, but decades of history have shown that in practice, that organization advocates primarily for the interests of universities. LEAD1 advocates for college athletic directors. In a post-NIL world, agents and new companies have begun to agitate and advocate for athlete economic interests, but also have their own agendas. The list goes on.
One of many reasons there isn't an institutional voice for college athletes is because right now, athletes don't have access to a traditional institution that gives voice to labor: unions. While this might change in the future, college athletes aren't considered employees, which means they can't unionize.
There are advantages and specific privileges that come with belonging to an entity that can force collective bargaining, no doubt about it. But a union isn't the only type of association that could be available to college athletes.
One group, the College Football Player's Association, or CFBPA, isn't waiting on legal changes and employment reclassification. They're trying to build a college football player's association now.
Here's what that might look like:
Right now, CFBPA membership is open to three different groups: high school football players, current college football players, and former college football players. Members would pay annual dues (between $12 and $50 bucks a year), and would have access to networking opportunities, the ability to vote on CFBPA positions, and more.
CFBPA Executive Director Jason Stahl told me that when he's explaining the structure to prospective members, he compares it to a fraternity, or an old social club, like the Elks or Lions Club. You have a national organization, you have local chapters, etc.
The entity is set up as a 501(c)4, a classification that Stahl told me allows the organization to maximize fundraising flexibility while also engaging in political activity. The group doesn't have a completely formalized political platform (Stahl believes that should be left to membership, rather than the organization's directors), but they have come out in favor of three significant policy changes:
Guaranteed independent medical care enforced by a CFBPA rep
Health, safety and welfare practice guidelines similar to the NFL and Ivy League football enforced by a CFBPA rep
Health insurance after playing days are over to cover football-related injuries.
The CFBPA rep angle is a pretty unique wrinkle
Eventually, the CFBPA plans to have a full-time player representative "embedded in every football program." Stahl told me that they would want player reps to be truly independent, and ideally would monitor programs nowhere near where they played (i.e, you'd want the Clemson rep to have played at say, Michigan, not Clemson or South Carolina). Staffing this role with former players helps create a jobs program for former players and establishes credibility with current and future membership.
But, of course, there are problems. Staffing 130+ football programs with full-time staffers takes money, which means fundraising and membership dues. There's also the big question as to how CFBPA representatives are supposed to push for, and enforce, health care protocols and safety guidelines.
After all, right now, the CFBPA isn't a union. A program wouldn't have to work with the organization.
On one hand, Stahl told me he's optimistic that some coaches would understand that acknowledging and working with the CFBPA would be in their best interest. After all, many P5 coaches have spent time in the NFL, and have experience working with the NFLPA. Having an entity to discuss health and safety protocols could potentially take some stuff off a coach's plate, after all, or help keep locker room peace.
But true leverage in this sort of situation wouldn't come from the law. It would have to come from membership. If the CFBPA succeeds in signing up hundreds of current football players, along with influential recruits and alumni, then coaches will be afraid to play hardball with an influential and popular group.
At the end of the day, I think this is what just about everything in the college sports reform movement comes down to. Who can actually build a popular movement?
Here's the thing about labor organizing. It isn't about who can write the most viral tweets, or charm the most reporters, or get quoted on TV enough. It's about the work of building relationships again and again and again. It's not sexy or flashy work. And it's really fucking hard.
It's hard because college athletes are young. It's hard because teams turn over quickly, football players don't always have unified interests, they're already crazy busy, they may not want to rock the proverbial boat, and for lots of other reasons.
To their credit, the CFBPA already has a leadership committee full of ex-football players, including at power programs like Clemson and Auburn. The organization feels optimistic heading into a full membership drive season this fall.
But is that enough to build a critical mass of players who care enough about reform to put up their own money? Is it enough to co-exist with other athlete advocacy organizations, like the NCPA?
I know Jason understands how important it is to actually have a mass movement for athletic reform. He wrote about this on his own Substack, back in 2020. It's great that more writers, more academics, more administrators and more think-tanks have begun to support college athletic reforms and athlete empowerment movements.
From his blog:
Reading Daniel Libit’s history of the reform movement, it also seems to me that there have been key constituencies missing from the broad movement which limit its ability to achieve any meaningful gains. As Libit outlines the movement it has basically consisted of lawyers, academics, legislators and nonprofits. This is all well and good, but where are the college presidents, athletics directors and coaches? Even more importantly, where are the players and their parents? It seems to me that if we ever want to see real success in a reform movement for college athletics—and specifically college football—these five constituencies will have to be involved in a meaningful way and in a way they haven’t been thus far. In short, we need a more complete movement at the elite level and sustained effort to organize players and parents at the grass roots if we are ever going to succeed in reform.
Maybe legal challenges are successful, and employment and unionization become pathways for college athletes. By doing the "pre-organizing", already, maybe a fully-operational CFBPA could pivot to a fully-fledged union, should their membership desire that, pretty quickly.
But unionization or not, agitating for change comes from organized and mobilized support.
With enough people, maybe college football players could win meaningful concessions on health, safety and campus culture without union designation. Without enough people, union protection may be too weak, or even unobtainable.
I'm an Ohio State graduate, and anybody who spent any significant time in Columbus is probably familiar with the ol' Woody Hayes mantra, 'You Win With People.'
I'm sure Woody would be horrified to learn of anybody using that saying to push for labor victories, but it's true.
The plan and structure of the CFBPA make sense. But in my view, how successful this organization will ultimately depend on how well they can recruit enough people.
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