UAB becomes first D-I football team to join PA

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UAB football players say their entire roster has signed up for, making them the first Division I football team to publicly join the players’ association. They were introduced to the group by an unexpected source: their head coach.

Trent Dilfer gathered his team for a voluntary meeting in mid-April to encourage them to prepare for a future when college athletes might be able to negotiate for a larger share of their sport’s revenue.

“They’re going to have a seat at the table,” Dilfer told ESPN. “I wanted to make sure I helped pour gasoline on something that is going to happen no matter what. I might as well use my influence to help it happen faster on behalf of our players.”

Dilfer introduced the team to, one of several companies attempting to organize athletes for potential revenue sharing discussions. UAB players told ESPN every member of the team signed up to join the organization after hearing its pitch.

The team has no plans to bargain with their school at this point, but their decision to join en masse is symbolic of the growing momentum for players to organize. Quarterback Jacob Zeno said the move shows the players’ growing interest in having a voice in a new model for college sports.

In a way, we’ve been cheated out of money, and decisions are being made behind our back,” Zeno told ESPN. It’s not really fair because we do so much for the sport, for the school and the conference. We should at least deserve to know what’s going on and what decisions are being made.”

UAB didn’t immediately comment when reached Monday morning.

The college sports industry is in the midst of unprecedented change. A slew of legal challenges — including antitrust lawsuits, employment complaints and competing state laws — is pushing the NCAA toward a more professional business model. The shifting rules have made it difficult for the association, conferences and school athletic directors to govern their sports. An increasing number of NCAA decision-makers have acknowledged this spring that to regain some control they may ultimately have to bargain with players.

Reaching a bargaining agreement would be simpler and more efficient if players were represented by a single organization like the players’ associations that exist in professional sports, says (AO) founder Jim Cavale. His company is one of several entities competing to serve that role if bargaining occurs.

There are a number of crucial unanswered questions that could shape those future negotiations: Which athletes will have the opportunity and leverage to bargain? How will they group themselves (by sport, by league, by some other unit)? Will they be negotiating as unionized employees or as independent contractors seeking a portion of television money via a group deal for their name, image and likeness rights?

Cavale said he believes answers will arrive within the next 12-15 months, perhaps via a settlement of the pending House v. NCAA antitrust lawsuit, which argues in part that players deserve a cut of their sports’ lucrative broadcast contracts. A loss at trial in that case could cost the NCAA billions of dollars. Multiple power conference athletic directors also have told ESPN in recent weeks that they expect a settlement in the House case could be the catalyst for a new revenue sharing system.

Ongoing attempts to formally unionize some athletes through the National Labor Relations Board could also have a major impact on future collective bargaining models. The NLRB is arguing in two pending cases — one at Dartmouth and another at USC — that some athletes are employees of their schools and have the right to form unions. Dartmouth is appealing a recent ruling in its case that gave its basketball players the right to unionize. In the USC case, both sides are due to provide final arguments to the administrative law judge in July. Because of a lengthy anticipated appeals process, neither case is expected to reach a conclusion in the coming year.

The NCAA has been steadfast in saying athletes should not be considered employees. While drawing a hard line at employment, NCAA president Charlie Baker told ESPN earlier this year he thinks some sort of players’ association could be “enormously positive.”

Each entity aiming to represent athletes at the bargaining table employs a slightly different strategy to gather a critical mass of athlete support. Two groups that currently manage or represent NIL-based collectives — The Collective Association and SANIL — say the collectives’ existing ties with athletes would make it simple for those groups to negotiate and distribute a share of television rights money to the players. The College Football Players Association, an organization established by a former Minnesota professor, has been working to build a membership with more traditional labor organizing methods.

Cavale and AO CEO Brandon Copeland said they are trying to lay the groundwork now so players are organized to take advantage of whatever model emerges from the current murky legal landscape.

“We’re not in there to get them to boycott, but we do understand the power they can have,” Cavale said. “When it is time to negotiate, we’ll be prepared to have UAB be a part of that negotiation. We’re building the pipes for the negotiation of the new deal for college athletics — the pipes for the athletes to be in that conversation.

AO says its current membership comprises 2,945 college athletes — 1,348 of them are football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball players from power conferences, a group Cavale refers to as the “Power 10k” because there are roughly 10,000 athletes that fit that category. He said he’d like to have half of the Power 10k signed up to his organization by the end of 2024.

Members have access to support services such as legal advice, medical second opinions and mental health professionals for free. The company is funded by venture capital investors and plans to make money in the future by taking a percentage of some group licensing deals they hope to strike on behalf of their members. By comparison, the College Football Players Association is funding its attempts to organize players through donations and membership dues.

Copeland, a recently retired linebacker who taught classes at an Ivy League school and served as an NFLPA player rep during his 10-year pro career, said they have been focused on trying to grow their membership and teach players more about their industry. He told ESPN he tries to thread a needle between letting athletes steer the ship toward a future model and guiding them as they attempt to learn more.

Prior to the UAB meeting most of their outreach to players has been through social media and word-of-mouth campaigns, Copeland said. He and Cavale say they are in conversations with several power conference schools about setting up visits with their full team in the next couple of months.

“It’s been really one-on-one,” Copeland said. “To get into a room like [UAB], hopefully this has a domino effect.”

Copeland said one of their challenges has been convincing players who are “in a lot of ways living their dreams right now” that they are not getting everything they could be getting. During his presentation to the UAB team earlier this month, Copeland said he saw several “aha moments” sink in for players.

At one point, Copeland asked the players how many of them felt the NCAA would have the athletes’ best interest in mind while shaping a new business model. No one in the room raised their hand.

Zeno, who is entering his final season as the Blazers’ quarterback, and running back Isaiah Jacobs both told ESPN the team meeting was an “eye-opening” experience. Zeno said the need for a players’ association sunk in after hearing that coaches, schools and athletic directors all have their own dedicated trade associations to advocate for their views of what the future of the sport should look like.

“They have all these people making decisions, and we’re not included in it,” Zeno said. “To have a platform gives a lot of power to players — this is a real big deal.”

Jacobs said he sees a future in which a broader group of players can push for a bigger piece of television revenue as well as other resources like increased mental health support from their schools.

Jacobs said Dilfer’s trust in AO was an important factor in his decision to sign up. Dilfer told ESPN he has no stake in AO’s business but believes in their approach and was pleased with some of the resources it offers for players now. Dilfer said he believes any coach that claims to be “player-centric” should be encouraging their team to organize.

“I think this is a revelatory time for college football coaches,” Dilfer said. “It’s going to reveal if they are about their players or about themselves. It’s not bad if they are about themselves, but the players are going to know.”

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