Sapakoff: Falcinelli, from blocking at Clemson to tackling players' association goals

Justin Falcinelli, while at Clemson earning two national championship rings (2016 and 2018) and as many degrees (in management and an MBA), noticed something worrisome about college football.

“The lack of medical care didn’t sit well with me,” the former All-ACC center said. “Football does so much damage to your body, especially as more and more science comes out about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

“I’ve had teammates whose surgeries went wrong. I’ve had teammates who are suffering post-football. Things like that. And the medical care just drops off as football takes years off your life. I just don’t think that’s right.”

Given a chance to help lead an effort to provide players with lifetime medical treatment and a piece of the enormous college football television revenue pie, Falcinelli jumped. He’s a Leadership Committee member of the one-year-old College Football Players Association. He works as many as 20 hours per week around his day job as a data insight analyst at Northrup Grumman in Baltimore.

Almost anyone who knows a former college football player who limps down the aisle at church or suffers from memory loss at a surprisingly early age knows long-term healthcare is long overdue.

Player unions?

A little more controversial, and probably inevitable.

But ignoring players for decades is what got college football into this transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) mess. And that’s just the start of it.

Which is where the CFBPA comes in. Jason Stahl, a former University of Minnesota professor and longtime advocate for college athletes, founded the organization in July of 2021. He aims to give players “a collective voice in the decision-making within their sport.”

While the CFBPA’s three “platform planks” address health issues, it also wants players to get a percentage of media rights deals.

That starts with the Big Ten, which invited Stahl to Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis this July but later pulled the offer.

‘It’s truly grassroots’

Of course, big change doesn’t come easy, as seen in conflicting bills being drafted in Washington to address NIL and other hot college sports topics.

Alabama’s Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville, a former head coach at Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati, is working on a bill with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin that will attempt to regulate NIL. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats led by former Stanford football player Cory Booker want wide-ranging athlete “Bill of Rights” legislation.

Whatever happens, CFBPA officers are angling to be the voice of college football player representation (Stahl told The Post and Courier he plans to release membership numbers “when the season begins”).

“It’s truly a grassroots, word-of-mouth movement,” said Falcinelli, 26. “It’s players reaching out to players, former players reaching out to former players and saying, ‘What are your current problems with the college football system and how can we fix them?’”

Tremayne Anchrum, Falcinelli’s former Clemson teammate and now a Los Angeles Rams tackle, is also part of the CFBPA’s Leadership Committee.

The CFBPA “dream vision” after signing up “a significant critical mass number of players,” Falcinelli said, is getting at the table for significant policy decisions.

That means having a CFBPA representative within every major college football program initially, with reps for programs at all levels eventually.

It sounds a lot like a union, complete with membership cards, monthly dues and meetings every fourth Friday at 10 a.m.

And its more or less necessary to get basic fairness into the system if college leaders don’t come to their senses, which is as unlikely as Vanderbilt winning the SEC East.

Health and money

“We would hope the NCAA or the conferences or the schools would meets us in good faith negotiations based on the fact that we are a large representative body of players,” Falcinelli said. “If these groups do not want to negotiate with us, unionization is kind of a threat to force that change.”

We sure seem to be headed toward player salaries at the major conference level.

Possibly, Falcinelli said.

“But it’s not the only solution,” he added, pointing to the TV revenue sharing idea.

Falcinelli has yet to speak with his former head coach about all this.

“But I would absolutely love the opportunity,” he said.

Dabo Swinney, talking during the summer of 2020 when the primary subject was COVID-19 precautions, said he was fine with a college football players association.

But, Swinney said, “That’s different from a union. I will say that.”

Keep an eye on how the CFBPA and like-minded efforts evolve. The impact on the sport might overshadow NIL, the transfer portal and conference realignment as players and former players such as Justin Falcinelli fight for two of America’s favorite pursuits, better health and more money.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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