Star Players and the Formation of a Players Association
Talking Openly About a Possible Problem
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I met Sean Clifford, starting quarterback at Penn State University, about six weeks ago when an Alumni Member of the CFBPA introduced us. Over the next month, Sean and I spoke several times by phone and Zoom about what we were trying to do at the CFBPA. He had never heard of us but he seemed interested in becoming a member and getting involved with us in some way.
At first glance, Sean appeared an unlikely candidate for such a role. He had no association with the player empowerment movement during the summer of 2020 and really no knowledge of the history of athlete’s rights organizing. Moreover, Sean was a star player who seemed to benefit from the current arrangement of college football. In creating the CFBPA, I always knew some of these star players might present a problem. Some would support a players association because it would benefit all the players of the game. However, some might actively work against us because they might perceive reforming college football as being personally bad for them.
In Sean I thought I had found the first type of star player. Sean spoke poignantly about his friend and teammate Journey Brown who was forced to take a medical retirement thus ending his NFL aspirations. He spoke of increased demands and coach oversight during summer practices which all of the players despised. He seemed fired up and ready to go and so I left for an eight-day trip to Penn State to talk with Sean and the team in person.
It was a great experience of the type I’d been waiting for. Shortly after arriving, Sean and I, along with Leadership Committee member Justin Falcinelli, developed a platform of demands and a two-prong strategy—which included possible unionization—to try to bring the leadership of the Big Ten to the bargaining table. Then I had a chance to organize the Penn State team in person—to have authentic conversations with them face-to-face without oversight of the coaching staff. I first spoke with the leaders on the team in small groups and individually and then to the entire team. All were excited to lead the first public campaign for the CFBPA.
However, in my final five minutes with the whole team, our element of surprise was lost when a coach discovered us. Twenty-four hours later, every administrator in the Big Ten and every coach in the Big Ten knew that I had been organizing a Penn State chapter of the CFBPA. Our campaign plan, outlined in this article, had now lost the element of surprise.
Most importantly, the campaign to turn our star player leader against the players association kicked into overdrive. Commissioner of the Big Ten Kevin Warren personally lobbied Sean telling him that they were creating a Big Ten reform committee that they wanted him to sit on. Such committees have a long track record of being ineffective but Sean was swayed in this direction in the week after I left Penn State. I had inklings this was happening but hoped Sean was still working to bring Kevin Warren to the table to negotiate with player leaders from the CFBPA. I did not know for sure which was the case until Sean posted a statement to his Twitter confirming that he was distancing himself from the CFBPA and joining the Big Ten committee.
This was obviously disheartening as our first CFBPA leader had now been flipped. Making matters worse, Sean told me that in addition to Kevin Warren he had been intensely lobbied by another star player and friend to give up on the CFBPA. Sean told me that Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan told him he would never support the CFBPA Big Ten campaign and this clearly weighed on Sean.
Morgan represented another type of star player I was concerned about—those who hold their head coach as an idol who can do no wrong despite all evidence to the contrary. Morgan had long occupied this role at Minnesota. Despite player after player after player coming forward to describe the environment of player mistreatment and manipulation at Minnesota under head coach P.J. Fleck, Morgan defends his coach every time. Just a few weeks ago, yet another former player of Coach Fleck, Val Martin, came forward to highlight the toxic environment within Minnesota football. He described his personal experience and posted testimonies from other players. Morgan, as always, publicly defended Fleck.
These types of star players—ones who will take an offer to abandon the players association or ones who will defend an abusive head coach—are clearly going to be a problem as we build the CFBPA. This isn’t personal as we will welcome Morgan and Clifford into the CFBPA should they decide to join. But, this problem absolutely must be exposed now so it doesn’t keep happening. Moreover, we want it to be known that we are looking for a different type of player leader—be it star or not. Namely, we are looking for leaders who will look beyond themselves and instead look outward and step up for all of the players of college football. If you’re just such a player, let us know by becoming a member today.