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How a Tweet Revealed the Difficulties of the College Athlete Unionization Push

An account made waves by claiming the first union chapter will be at Penn State, but that wasn’t accurate. The reality is much more complex.

INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford says he’s focused on his next five days. That’s how long he and his teammates have until they start fall camp to prep for the 2022 season following an appearance at Big Ten media days. But it was the five days preceding his appearance that briefly seemed to promise seismic change to college athletics. It appeared on social media that Clifford was at the forefront of a unionization push for college athletes through an organization called the College Football Players Association (CFBPA)—and then it all fell apart.

“Do I want to make a change for college athletics and college athletes across the country? That’s one of the things that I set out to do this offseason, and I still believe that,” Clifford said to reporters at Big Ten media days. “I’m very blessed to be in this situation to have a commissioner that’s open to conversations, a head coach who is open to conversations and a new athletic director that is open to conversations. It’s a blessing 100%. But realistically, I’m here for Penn State football and Sept. 1.”

Digging into the way things unraveled and what will happen next paint the picture of how difficult it is to organize college athletes and how quickly things can become disconnected.

The CFBPA, launched in 2021

It had been building to this moment for a year to get a high-profile player on a high-profile team to take the lead as it attempted to organize college football players. The organization is headed by Jason Stahl, a former professor at Minnesota who says of Clifford’s involvement: “We thought, well, this is gonna be our big break.”

It charges modest membership dues to current and former college football players. Per Clifford, over the last 90 days, the CFBPA had been presenting ideas to him and his teammates regarding reform in how college athletes are treated.

Stahl visited campus in State College, as CBS Sports reported, from July 7 to 14, meeting in secret with Penn State players. It culminated with a team meeting the morning of the 14th, which was interrupted in the final five minutes by a Penn State staffer, Stahl told CBS Sports. It’s a time of the year when coaches are typically out of the office and on vacation.

The CFBPA’s pillars are three-pronged, as detailed in a slideshow shared with Sports Illustrated in which CFBPA members “demand” the following:

  • Independent medical care enforcement by a CFBPA representative.
  • Post football health protections.
  • Percentage of media rights revenue for the players.

The slideshow also showcased two paths this could go: a quick one that envisioned the demands being met and an agreement announced by July 27, and a more long-term play that had an official unionization process that envisioned a union election victory by the end of January and a formal CBA negotiation by the spring of 2023—both ambitious time lines.

“When I left Penn State, even after this sort of strength and training coach came in and the whole jig was up I still thought, Wow we got this team,” Stahl tells SI. “We’ve got the leader. I really felt like when I left there, the whole team was on board with the campaign that we had outlined and were ready to step up through the players association to take control of the movement.”

Unbeknownst to Stahl, Clifford then spoke to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on July 17, one of multiple conversations the two have had over the years. Stahl then spoke to the quarterback on the 18th, characterizing the discussion as “our first very tough conversation.” At this point Stahl said he started to feel that “something was up.” Eventually, Stahl was put in touch with Warren, and spoke to him on July 21 for what both characterized to SI as a cordial conversation that lasted about an hour. During the talk, Stahl presented the commissioner with the same bullet points.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren talks to reporters during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference media days, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Tuesday, July 26, 2022, in Indianapolis.

Warren recently said the Big Ten has begun formalizing a student-athlete advisory committee.

Both described the call as introductory. Stahl says Warren was amenable in discussing the first two points, but (unsurprisingly to him) was not going to play ball on the third regarding media-rights revenue for players. He says he thought Warren was taking notes—which is typical, those close to Warren say, when he’s gathering information—and asked detailed follow-up questions.

“We spent a lot of time just talking about it, and I like his ideas, but it’s very tough when people start putting words like demands,” Warren says. “I want to make sure our student-athletes are taken care of; that’s why we started this student-athlete advisory committee. We’ve got this student advisory committee to get feedback as far as what’s important. I told Jason I want to listen well because I may think certain things are important, and they may think things are totally different.”

The next day, a tweet spurs action

Whatever nascent progress had been made at Penn State quickly dissipated for the CFBPA after a tweet by a media company called More Perfect Union circulated last week, featuring a video of Clifford talking about a teammate who had to medically retire, accompanied by a bombshell in its text: “College football players are unionizing, and the first chapter will be at Penn State. The College Football Players Association is already in negotiations with the Big Ten,” the tweet read.

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An hour later, a correction came from the same account, explaining that CFBPA leadership “clarifies that they aren’t organizing as a union but rather an association to represent players’ interests.”

Stahl says Friday, three outlets were trying to break the story on the discussions at Penn State, including More Perfect Union. One was ready to go to press and called Stahl for confirmation, which he says he gave a “no comment” to. He then let the other two outlets know another outlet was close to publication. One took a cautionary approach, while the other, More Perfect Union, sent the initial tweet above.

“I saw the tweet and I was like, ‘I’ve only explained to them 1,000 times that while we’re considering a union, that’s not where the starting point is,” Stahl says. “So they had this inaccurate information. I called the guy on the phone and I said, ‘Look, I don’t necessarily mind that you published [the video], but you got it wrong.’ He said, ‘What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, publish a correction, do something.’ And then they sort of added a tweet to it.”

Over the next few days, Stahl told multiple outlets that while unionization was a potential long-term goal, the organization shouldn’t be called a union at this time. It may seem semantic, but Stahl says he wanted to keep unionization as both a stick—in a carrot/stick analogy—and as a backup plan.

“We’ll sit down at the table and we just really want to talk about three things—well, if you were unionized you have to talk about way more than three things,” Stahl says. “So we thought we’re giving them an opportunity to talk about these three things. Did I think [an agreement] was gonna happen? No. I thought we would ultimately have to go the union route, but still you want to act in good faith, and we were trying to act in good faith.”

By the end of last Friday afternoon, Warren issued a statement saying that the Big Ten had started the process of formalizing a student-athlete advisory committee. Clifford also issued a statement saying, in part, “It is important to state that my dialogues with my coach, athletics director and commissioner were conducted as a student-athlete. To characterize my dialogues as being on behalf of a union or as a union member would be inaccurate” and affirming that he and his teammates were committed to change on the campus and conference level.

In his Tuesday remarks opening Big Ten media days, Warren mentioned the league has formed a “​​Student-Athlete Advisory and Advocacy Committee” (adding advocacy to the group’s mandate). Warren says the committee itself was actually born out of a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom call with athletes from each Big Ten school—which Clifford was on—during the COVID-19 pause in 2020. He added that earlier this year he made the decision to formalize that discussion, but that his conversation with the CFBPA plus a July trip with athletes, coaches and admins from the Big Ten and other conferences to Selma, Ala., to tour civil rights landmarks reaffirmed that the Big Ten’s student-athlete advisory committee needed to move forward.

Warren and a source close to him separately denied that news of the committee was inserted into his Tuesday remarks in light of the CFBPA news cycle days. “It got put in my comments [Tuesday] because when I was preparing over the last couple weeks for this, I’ve had a couple student-athletes come up to me lately and go, ‘Man, [the 2020 Zoom call] was really powerful,’” the commissioner says.

Aftermath and what’s next

Hours before Warren took to the stage at media days, Stahl published a blog post on his Substack page.

It painted Clifford as an example of a star player who he was worried would be swayed by conference and campus administrators. It’s clear that Clifford has distanced himself from the CFBPA and it is likely the quarterback will have a role with the Big Ten’s SAAC if he wants to in the future. When asked about calling Clifford (and his friend, Minnesota starting QB Tanner Morgan) out by name, Stahl pointed to how the MLB players association fought against star players who benefited from the status quo when it was being developed in the 1960s.

“This is not something I decided on my own,” Stahl says. “We had an all-hands-on-deck leadership meeting on Saturday night, and this was a main topic of discussion; let’s just say I knew we had to do it. But I said we’ve got to do it in the most respectful way possible, and we have to make sure that this is about an open debate regarding whose position is correct. It’s a political debate, and we want to keep it balanced and not hateful, but it needs to be had. It needs to be had. This happens at the beginning of any players association.”

The CFBPA was initially invited by the conference to media days, but the invitation was rescinded the weekend before. Clifford and his coach, James Franklin, acknowledged what happened quickly before reiterating that their focus was strictly football. Franklin did, however, say it was not accurate that a meeting between him, Stahl, Clifford and Penn State athletic director Pat Kraft scheduled for July 17 was canceled when asked by On3 Sports.

For the CFBPA, Stahl says he’ll continue to attempt to organize at other schools in the Big Ten and claims the movement isn’t done at Penn State. He would not confirm which other schools he’s organizing at. The organization has also added additional planks to its platform:

  • Healthier practices similar to the NFL and Ivy League football enforced by a CFBPA-employed full-time employee representative.
  • A real offseason.
  • CFBPA representatives at the bargaining table debating any changes to college football including, but not limited to, transfer portal regulations, NIL and expansion of the college football playoffs.

One Big Ten source says the two medical-related planks in the CFBPA’s list of demands might be in the league’s best interest to figure out how to adopt so it can become a beacon for players and a leader that could force other conferences to follow suit.

At media days, Clifford said he never gave a thought to sitting the event out, as it’s the first one he’s attended. He said that in a way, he’s here only because of the pandemic, which makes sense when you consider he’s entering his sixth year thanks to the extra eligibility afforded to players in 2020. The QB was also on the initial call that Warren says birthed the Big Ten’s student-athlete advisory and advocacy committee. And Clifford’s push for athlete advocacy can be linked to the ’20 We Want to Play movement headed by, among others, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.

 “He’s a person that’s gonna go places. I just think Sean’s heart is in the right place,” Warren says. “He’s not looking out for Sean, he’s a leader, he’s a quarterback. He’s looking out for his teammates, and I think people look up to him. Sean Clifford is not a person who would go into something that was self-serving for him; I think anything he goes into with the mindset that I’m a quarterback, I’m a leader, leaders eat last.”

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