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What the CFPA/Penn State announcement means and doesn't mean:

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

A few quick housekeeping notes before today's newsletter:

  • I mentioned this last week, but want to do so again. Effective August 1, I will no longer be able to offer complimentary Discord access to our new paid subscribers. Existing subscribers will still be able to retain access to the Moon Crew Discord server, but new ones will not be added. I'm making this change because truthfully, very few subscribers regularly used the service, and operating it is surprisingly expensive. I want to be a good steward of resources and invest money into stuff that you'll actually use! If Discord access is a priority for you, I recommend upgrading before August 1.

  • This newsletter was written early on Saturday morning. I'm actually on vacation right now, hopefully hiking in the woods with my family or napping on a hammock somewhere. I will return to Chicago on Wednesday afternoon.

I spent most of my Friday trying to frantically tie up as many loose ends as possible, so of course, significant Off The Field College Sports news dropped.

In case you missed it, ESPN reporter and Friend Of The Newsletter Dan Murphy had the most concise breakdown. Penn State QB Sean Clifford announced that he, along with other football players affiliated with the College Football Players Association (CFBPA) have had conversations with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren about improving athlete playing conditions and securing a share of future league revenues.

You might have heard about the news from this, sadly pretty misleading, tweet:

I honestly believe this is a significant development. But when it comes to athlete organization and labor law, precision is important, so I think it may be useful to take a step back and talk about what actually happened here, and what that means, and doesn't mean.

Penn State football players are not (right now anyway) unionizing. The CFBPA isn't a union.

The More Perfect Union tweet claimed that 'college football players are unionizing.' That is not true, and the organization sent a clarifying tweet right after the fact.

One way that you could confirm that the CFBPA is not a union is by going to the CFBPA website and reading their most recent newsletter, published on Wednesday, July 20. It's titled "We Are Not A Union."

What the CFPA/Penn State announcement means and doesn't mean:


I actually interviewed Jason Stahl a few weeks ago, right here at Extra Points, to learn more about what the CFBPA is actually trying to accomplish. That story, which I've now unlocked for all readers, is titled "Here's what a non-union college football player's association could look like."

These distinctions are important!

Right this very second, whether all FBS college football players can actually unionize is unclear. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo released a memo in September of 2021 stating that she believed that many college athletes are miscategorized as non-employees under the National Labor Relations Act, but current athletes have been slow to file complaints that would formally challenge that status quo. I believe it is also fair to say that it is unclear whether the NLRB has jurisdiction over college athletes at public universities.

The court system could declare that many college athletes are employees, which would clear up some of the legal ambiguity around college athlete unionization. So could federal lawmakers. But as of right this second, forming a college football player union has legal and procedural obstacles, obstacles that do not really apply to a Player's Association.

In our previous conversation, Stahl told me that the CFBPA is currently set up as a 501(c)4, which allows for increased flexibility in fundraising while still retaining the ability to engage in political activity. Per Murphy's story:

Stahl said if the Big Ten does not make significant progress on doing more for players, he believes the organization's next step is to register as a 501(c)(5) labor organization and potentially begin the process of becoming a union.

Multiple industry sources told me on Friday that it would be a significant mischaracterization to say that the Big Ten was "negotiating with" Clifford or anybody at the CFBPA right now, over health insurance, media payouts, or anything else.

Without the legal recognization of a union, and without mass membership and buy-in, there's nothing really forcing Warren, or any administrator, to come to the table and formally negotiate about anything, although the two sides could certainly agree to talk.

I believe we're still a long way from the Big Ten being compelled to fork over TV money to athletes. But that doesn't mean that I think these conversations are pointless.

Part of what makes the CFBPA interesting to me is their idea of trying to build a very expansive membership pool of anybody tied to the playing of football. It's called the College Football Player's Association, but membership is open to high school athletes and former athletes as well.

Stahl compared the structure of the CFPA to that of the Elks Club to me in our conversation, and when you read how he describes the organization, it's clear that he sees it as something potentially more than just a labor organization:

Namely, we are trying at some level to build a new nationwide community of Americans who happen to have in common that they play the game of football. In this way, at our most idealistic level, we are trying to create a new institution which will revive American community.

A mass organization of those connected to and passionate about football could agitate for labor change. It could create a jobs program for ex-college football players, which is what Stahl sees the Player Rep system could potentially become. It could be a social club, a networking society, and more.

A group can't flex political power, be that within a legally recognized labor model, or outside of it, without mass, engaged membership. Honestly, it can't really accomplish any of those other goals without broad membership either.

Beginning these conversations, even if they're informal and unlikely to produce immediate concrete policy goals, can be effective at building out organization networks among college athletes. It could help grow the CFBPA, or similar groups. Perhaps most importantly, these conversations center an athlete as a voice in reform efforts. A current Big Ten athlete is much more likely to listen to what Sean Clifford has to say about college football player working conditions than what I say, after all.

I really believe that any effective athletics reform anything needs to be athlete centered

I expressed this frustration a bit at the NIL Summit, an event that I think was built with very good intentions and will likely improve every year....but I saw a lot of 40 somethings talking to other 40 somethings about empowering athletes, and then would wander around the ballroom, talk to those athletes, and hear that they had no idea where to start with anything to do with NIL. Broadly speaking, I think a lot of the last year in NIL has included a lot of well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) folks talking AT athletes, rather than with them.

That's a risk with college sports reform and labor reform too. Nobody is going to be able to post college athletes into unionization. It's great that a handful of lawyers, academics, journalists and political operatives are highly invested in these issues. But for reform movements to stick, they need to be driven by athletes.

That level of organization is really hard to build, and it is especially hard to build among a transient and young labor force, but it is possible.

So I really believe that to have somebody like Sean Clifford step forward and visibly show that he cares about the folks who will be playing college football longer after his career ends, that he wants to learn more about how to make his locker room, program and sport stronger, and that he's willing to engage those in power about it...is important. That's leadership. That will benefit people like Clifford long after his playing career is over, and it will benefit those that work with him on those efforts, even if they do not generate immediate policy wins.

I do not know if the CFBPA will ultimately be successful in generating political power. I do not know if the CFBPA will ultimately be successful in creating a lasting social institution to benefit football players socially and professionally. I don't know when, or even if, big-time revenue sharing actually happens, only it would require several more legal and bureaucratic steps first.

But I feel reasonably confident that if an athlete organization is ultimately successful in winning major labor gains, it will look similar to what the CFBPA is trying to do.

So yeah, college football player unionization didn't happen last week. It's unlikely to happen next week. I think the odds that any immediate conversations with Big Ten administrators and CFBPA members will lead to major policy concessions are pretty low.

But that doesn't mean it isn't important or meaningful.

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