With college sports more in flux than ever before, new players association group emerges

Brandon Copeland (left) is shown with Jim Cavale. (Photo credit: AO)
Brandon Copeland (left) is shown with Jim Cavale. (Photo credit: AO)

Amid the wave of conference realignment that rocked college sports earlier this month, a thought crossed Jim Cavale’s mind: “What do the athletes think?”

Despite a few softball players from Washington and Oregon publicly criticizing their school’s move to the Big Ten, few athlete voices were heard.

In this era of college athlete rights, Cavale says there exists a missing piece: a central hub for athletes to communicate, collaborate and even vote on important issues.

That may be about to change.

Cavale, a power player in college sports who founded the NIL marketplace INFLCR, is partnering with recently retired NFL pro Brandon Copeland in creating Athletes.org, a free membership organization open to all college athletes. Athletes.org, abbreviated as AO, is structured in a similar way to a players association. Members are able to join chapters within the organization based on the sport and conference in which they participate.

Using a phone app, AO gives member athletes a place to discuss and even vote on key issues while providing on-demand support through an array of experts in the legal and medical field. Using the uniform and collective voice of the athletes, the group will advocate for improvements such as medical coverage and scholarship protections.

“There are a lot of things happening in college sports. NIL and the transfer portal are only the beginning of where we are headed,” said Cavale, who stepped away earlier this month from his role as CEO of INFLCR to start up AO. “There have been associations for the colleges, coaches and even the athletic directors for a long time. It’s a time where athletes need to finally have their own association.”

In the most revolutionary era of college sports, athletes hold more power, influence and money than they’ve ever possessed. Pressures from the public, state lawmakers and the courts have toppled many of the NCAA’s amateurism foundations, bringing sweeping, pro-athlete changes to the industry.

A players association — and its potential power to collectively bargain — is seen by many as a solution to the problems emerging from an unruly system of NIL state laws.

“What we’re going to do for athletes is not only give them a place for a unified voice, but to create community,” said Copeland, a 10-year NFL pro who graduated from Penn and taught financial literacy classes there. “Knowledge, access and protection stems from lack of conversation and lack of staying connected. It’s 2023. It’s time somebody created a solution.”

AO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit funded by a group of “strategic partners,” said Cavale. He declined to reveal any of the partners aside from On3, a media network covering college sports and specializing in NIL activity. For now, AO employs an eight-person staff with plans to grow more.

However, the organization has on retainer dozens of experts to assist athletes, including pro-bono attorneys, accountants and doctors. Athletes can access such tools from a directory in the app. The organization provides a form of NIL protections for athletes as well with a verified registry that certifies NIL agents and school collectives, all of which can be found in the app.

From a collaborative perspective, the company plans to create an athlete ambassador program for different sports. Ambassadors will act as leaders in debate and discussion. Player ambassadors are expected to be announced later this fall.

College athletes aren’t the only ones who can be involved. High school prospects who have committed or have a scholarship offer letter can join.

“It’s important that the perspective of college athletes is included in a lot of the key decisions that are being made in the future structure of college sports,” Cavale said. “Do they want to be employees or not? Do they want to have their school realign to another conference geographically far away?”

As with many startups, its leaders are spreading the word. Cavale and Copeland are launching later Wednesday a media blitz in New York, with appearances on NFL Network, CNBC and other outlets.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports, Cavale made clear that Athletes.org is not a union and has no such plans of unionization. The organization is meant to work collaboratively with college administrative leaders for the betterment of the industry.

“As you know, unionization has been attempted before at the college sports level and it’s very difficult,” Cavale said. “Athletes aren’t employees. Even if they are employees, a lot of them would be employees of state and public institutions with state laws that would prevent unionization from happening.

“Athletes.org is the best thing for the entire industry. This is not an us-versus-them situation between college athletes and the schools’ administration and the conferences. That’s not what this is.”

Similar movements have unfolded in the recent past.

In 2015, Northwestern football players petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to seek to form a union. By unanimous decision, the board denied their claim that they are university employees and should be allowed to collectively bargain.

In many respects, players associations in college exist today. Ramogi Huma presides over the National College Players Association based in California, and Jason Stahl leads the College Football Players Association in Minnesota. The two entities have had varied degrees of success in similar pursuits — achieving more rights for athletes.

Last summer, quarterback Sean Clifford, in conjunction with leaders from the College Football Players Association, led a movement at Penn State that ended after school and Big Ten administrators learned of the issue. Clifford released a statement Wednesday heralding Athletes.org as bringing a players association to the industry that is “a long time coming.”

Over the last several years, the NCPA has spearheaded a legislative and legal effort to pursue more rights for athletes. In a resounding win for the NCPA and Huma, the National Labor Relations Board announced earlier this year that it is pursuing charges against the NCAA, Pac-12 and USC for unfair labor practices — an ordeal that many expect to end with athletes ruled as employees of their universities. A court case in Pennsylvania could do the same.