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A New Group to Organize College Football Players Just Launched. Incredible Timing.

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After last week’s NLRB memo made the unionization of college athletes a possibility, the CFBPA could become very important.

Last week, a memo from the top lawyer of the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, asserted that certain college athletes should be legally considered employees. This decision took a wrecking ball to the myth of the “student athlete,” and opened the door for the unionization of players in big time college sports. For one recently launched group, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. 

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) formally launched in July, with the goal of promoting labor organizing among college football players. Now, the nascent group finds itself presented with an unprecedented gift from the NLRB, few competitors in its newly energized space, and a clear path to becoming a leader in the drive to transform college sports forever. 

All they need now are the college football players. 

The CFBPA is the brainchild of Jason Stahl, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who became concerned about the exploitation of the school’s football players while he was teaching many of them in his classes. He left the school last year amid disputes over its treatment of players, and began working on a book about the topic. He put together the CFBPA with the belief that some kind of players association is necessary to enable players to begin organizing effectively. Stahl is the group’s executive director. Its advisory board includes current and former college players, ethics and labor law experts, and former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, a longtime advocate of paying college athletes. 

In addition to fundraising (the group is seeking 1,000 recurring donors by the end of this month, a number that Stahl believes they will reach), the CFBPA’s biggest ongoing task is recruiting active college football players as members. That’s not an easy task, particularly because the fear of retaliation is high. For now, the group is allowing its current player members to remain anonymous, and is not releasing specific membership numbers. Players from at least three schools are already organizing with the group, according to Stahl. 

“Any workplace trying to unionize [can face retaliation], and this is the same thing. But within college football, it’s particularly pronounced,” Stahl says. If coaches or schools do retaliate with measures like withholding playing time from certain players, it can be virtually impossible to prove. “We’re trying to create an initial campaign that guys feel safe with.” 

The group’s goal is to unveil an organizing committee in December, made up of current players from a number of different schools, both big and small. By the end of the year, Stahl hopes to establish the first Players Association chapter at an individual school. 

The structure of college football poses some unique challenges for organizers. Though college football players as a group hold a great deal of leverage within a wealthy, powerful institution, individual players serve only brief careers—many may be on teams for only a year or two before leaving football and their schools entirely. And a good deal of uncertainty surrounds what the laws will ultimately be that govern the players’ labor rights, and whether collective bargaining would take place with individual schools, with athletic conferences, or with the NCAA itself. 

For its part, the NCAA issued a statement last week arguing forcefully against the NLRB’s memo, but politics and regulatory decisions could eventually make negotiating one big collective bargaining agreement covering all NCAA athletes a rational decision. Perhaps the only certainty is that if college athletes are to take advantage of their new labor rights, they will need to organize, and likely unionize, in order to create an entity capable of bargaining in the first place. 

Against this backdrop, the CFBPA aims to become a permanent institution, capable of serving the needs of players even after they have left college football altogether. That will require not just organizing the players of today, but building Players Association chapters durable enough to carry on for years. Structurally, such associations could be obvious launching pads for union campaigns, if the CFBPA is indeed able to attract large numbers of players at certain schools. 

Stahl says that most players, parents and associates of players that he speaks to have concrete concerns—chief among them, seeing to it that existing NCAA rules governing things like how many hours players can be asked to devote to “football activities” are actually enforced. He is not unaware of the obstacles. “There’s so much work to be done, with such a transient work force,” he says. 

But with the landmark NLRB memo coming just months after the June Supreme Court ruling that allows college athletes more avenues for compensation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year that the NCAA’s fantasy world of unpaid “student athletes” finally starts to crumble for good. The CFBPA is, quite literally, in the right place at the right time. Whether they are the seed that grows into a new branch of the labor movement remains to be seen.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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How states forced the NCAA’s hand on student athlete endorsements

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Mackenzie MaysAndrew AtterburyThe NCAA’s surprise decision Tuesday to allow student athletes to earn endorsement money was spurred by an unlikely alliance of states that typically disagree on everything from abortion to immigration.

Pressure from states, with California taking the lead and Florida, New York and New Jersey quickly piling on, broke down a longstanding NCAA rule prohibiting student athletes from earning money from endorsements and other outside sponsorships.

Their stand appears all but certain to change the landscape of college sports. On Tuesday, the NCAA Board of Directors voted unanimously to allow students to financially benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

The vote comes after more than a decade of complaints and festering cynicism over the status of student athletes — who earn nothing while their colleges and coaches reap riches — and just a month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act on the set of LeBron James’ HBO show, “The Shop.”

“Without the public clearly on the side of the rights of student athletes, and the governor signing my bill, and the rest of the states following suit, the NCAA absolutely wouldn’t have acted,” said California state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who authored the legislation Newsom signed. “Whether you come from the fact that this has been an exploitation of black athletes or come at it from that it’s just a violation of every free-market principle … it’s a change that was so ripe for right now.”

A profusion of similar state and federal efforts have since kicked off to fight the billion-dollar behemoth that is the NCAA.

On Oct. 24, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ardent sports fan and former Yale baseball captain, said he would back legislation to allow student athletes to profit from their names and likenesses.

The Republican was struck to get behind the movement while watching a football game at the University of Florida’s stadium, commonly called “The Swamp.” As he watched the Florida Gators and Auburn University duke it out in Gainesville, Fla., he wondered why members of the marching band could make money on YouTube, but the players couldn’t.

The issue has bipartisan support in Florida and is “gonna have legs,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday as NCAA leaders huddled in Atlanta.

DeSantis credited California for opening the door, but said that another powerhouse college athletic state joining the fray added to the resistance that turned the tide. Florida is home to the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Miami and other schools with massive athletic programs that battle to win top recruits.

The argument in the Sunshine State has centered on athletes deserving to participate in an economy that was built on the backs of students. Social media platforms are ripe for student athletes to cash in, lawmakers have noted, but they’re forbidden by current NCAA rules from doing so.

Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada and Pennsylvania are among those following the Golden State’s lead. All are weighing legislation to allow student athletes to be paid in outright defiance of the NCAA.

“It’s about time. The status quo was clearly unacceptable,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in an interview on News 12 late Tuesday.

The political talking points of state lawmakers vary, but the central sentiment and intended outcome are the same: Student athletes should be allowed to benefit from their talents.

The NCAA, the Pacific-12 Conference, coaches and others have fought state efforts to make their own rules, saying a patchwork of policies would cause confusion and the “professionalization” of college sports would create an unfair playing ground for half a million student athletes nationwide.

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” Michael Drake, NCAA board chair and president of Ohio State University, said in a statement Tuesday.

A wave of state-level bipartisanship has quickly rolled over those arguments. And the NCAA’s vote on Tuesday won’t stop state lawmakers from adopting their own rules and creating the patchwork the association is trying to prevent.

New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen), a former college athlete who is sponsoring student athlete legislation, said piecemeal legislation isn’t ideal but had to happen.

“Sometimes you need to send a shot across the bow for things to get moving,” he said.

On the liberal West coast, racial justice issues have taken center stage in the debate to reform an industry where predominantly white coaches are being compensated while black athletes who sacrifice their bodies for certain sports are not.

During committee hearings in Sacramento this summer, Los Angeles Chargers football player Russell Okung, who is black, told lawmakers that the NCAA uses exploitative policies and “outdated logic rooted in slavery.”

Meanwhile, red states including Kentucky and South Carolina have joined the fight, calling it a common-sense free market proposal.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a former Republican presidential candidate, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, have both called for NCAA reform this month despite being political polar opposites on other policy issues.

Former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi spoke out earlier this month against not being able to benefit from her stellar senior year, including being metaphorically “handcuffed” by the NCAA, she said, which restricted her from receiving a YouTube check for her perfect floor routine that went viral earlier this year.

“For us to regulate their ability to monetize what they’ve built up over time strictly because they’re student athletes, it goes against a free market,” Florida state Rep. Kionne McGhee (D-Cutler Bay) told POLITICO. McGhee and Chip LaMarca (R-Lighthouse Point) have each filed student athlete bills in Florida.

While the NCAA received praise for Tuesday’s decision — a move that followed months of threats from the athletic association that if the California legislation passed it could lead to the state’s schools being disqualified from competitions — state lawmakers aren’t backing off.

“California will be closely watching as the NCAA’s process moves forward to ensure the rules ultimately adopted are aligned with the legislation we passed this year,” Newsom said in a statement Tuesday.

LaMarca said he is cautiously optimistic.

“We will continue working to make sure they keep the promises they have made to our student athletes today,” he said in a written statement.

Miami Dolphins player Davon Godchaux issued a statement praising the Florida legislation, and gave states credit.

“If this is something that made the NCAA comfortable,” he said, “they would have done this a long time ago.”

Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her watchdog reporting of Rep. Devin Nunes and other politicians — and the fierce push back it provoked — made national headlines, including being the subject of a feature in GQ. She is well-versed in California education policy, having started at the Bee as the education reporter, where she covered Fresno Unified, the state’s fourth-largest school district. She was a national finalist for the Education Writers Association’s reporting award in 2018.

About the Author: Andrew Atterbury is an education reporter for POLITICO Florida Pro.

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