Penn State QB Sean Clifford, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren discuss improving benefits

Big Ten football players held talks with league commissioner Kevin Warren this week about giving athletes a bigger voice in the future and enhancing a variety of player benefits. Warren also spoke to the chairman of an emerging players’ association about the possibility of an independent group representing players in discussions with the league.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford said this week’s talks with Warren were a positive, collaborative start to give players a seat at the table in future decisions with the league. He said he and the other players he spoke to have no intention of forming a union or entering contentious negotiations with the league at this point.

A spokesman for the Big Ten confirmed that the commissioner spoke to players and separately to Jason Stahl, the founder and executive director of the College Football Players Association (CFBPA). Clifford and Stahl met this summer and hatched a plan to organize players in the Big Ten to ask the league for improvements in medical care and a share of future revenue.

Clifford said his discussions with Warren have so far focused on standardized medical care for players after their college careers have ended. He said Warren and Penn State executives were receptive to initial discussions about how to make a variety of improvements for players and former players.

“It was a collective group that came together,” Clifford told ESPN on Friday. “Everyone wants the players to have more say.”

Stahl spoke to Warren earlier this week about three initial issues the CFBPA wants to negotiate with the Big Ten:

• A representative on each campus who can represent players in medical situations or other disputes. The representative would be hired by the CFBPA and would serve a similar role locally as players’ representatives in professional sports unions.
• Funds from the conference to purchase ex-player health insurance policies that would cover the treatment of injuries from their college football career.
• A percentage of player media rights revenue to be determined.

A Big Ten representative confirmed that Warren had spoken with Stahl, but said characterizing their conversation as the start of any kind of collective bargaining discussion was incorrect.

“The Big Ten Conference communicates and works consistently with our student-athletes,” Warren said in a statement to ESPN. “We are in the process of establishing a student-athlete advisory committee to seek input from our student-athletes on the changing landscape of collegiate athletics. We continue to work with our member institutions to ensure our student-athletes have an excellent and comprehensive experience while promoting and upholding the mission of higher education and prioritizing excellence and integrity in both scholarship and athletics.”

Clifford said he’s not yet ready to have a conversation about what players would do if the Big Ten weren’t ready to make significant changes, as their talks so far have been positive.

“We want to have a conversation that we’ve never had before,” Clifford said. “These three things are just the basis of what we would like to do. In reality, we think more could happen. I could see a lot of changes coming in the future. Realistically, the workforce should have a voice at this point.”

Clifford first met Stahl, a former history professor at the University of Minnesota, in June. Stahl met with the Penn State football team on campus two weeks ago. He said he hopes Penn State players will serve as the first chapter of a statewide association, although negotiation efforts are focused on the Big Ten for now.

Stahl said if the Big Ten doesn’t make significant progress in doing more for players, he believes the organization’s next step is to register as a 501(c)5 working organization and potentially begin the process of creating one to become a union.

Warren and the Big Ten are reportedly on the cusp of an unprecedented financial fortune thanks to a forthcoming media rights deal that experts believe could be worth more than $1 billion for the conference. Those numbers are likely supported by the recent announcement that USC and UCLA will join the Big Ten by 2024.

Clifford began meeting with Stahl before the two Los Angeles-based schools announced their plans, but he said their decision should help strengthen the players’ case of being treated as workers.

To register as a 501(c)(5) labor organization, members would have to vote to form a union and have their application approved by the National Labor Relations Board — a process that could take many months. A previous attempt by Northwest soccer players to unionize in 2014 was ultimately unsuccessful after the NLRB refused to rule on the case. The CFBPA would have to be successful in arguing that the Big Ten is a private corporation that serves as the players’ employer.

The NLRB is evaluating two complaints filed earlier this year arguing that the NCAA should be treated as an employer of collegiate athletes. The NLRB’s General Counsel released a memo last year questioning the NCAA’s stance that athletes are not employees. The NCAA is also a defendant in a lawsuit attempting to argue that players should be considered employees of their school.

Clifford said he’s spent the last month learning as much as he can about Northwestern’s attempt to unionize. He said he believes the collegiate sports landscape and public perceptions have changed enough over the past eight years to lead to a different conclusion.

“I think that’s been a thing for a while now,” Clifford said. “It’s not as crazy a concept as it was in 2014. Players have rights to the name, likeness and likeness. Now it’s about coming to the table on the billion-dollar deals and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk about what we can do here.'”

On Friday, Clifford stressed that his conversations with Big Ten leadership to date have left him optimistic he can be part of a group of players who can create meaningful change by working with Warren and the conference. Penn State QB Sean Clifford, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren discuss improving benefits

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