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.
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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.