In an ever-changing college sports landscape, student-athletes need a seat at the table. Jim Cavale and Brandon Copeland are building one with athletes.org.
Brandon Copeland remembers having $343 in his bank account. He remembers not wanting to answer his phone until after 4 p.m. on Tuesdays — the time at which your NFL roster spot becomes guaranteed for the week, thus ensuring another paycheck.
No, playing in the NFL does not automatically mean financial stability for eternity. In a sport where the average shelf life for a player is so short, even the bigger paychecks don’t go as far as one might think.
Copeland played his college ball at Penn — an Ivy League institution that competes at the FCS level and does not offer athletic scholarships. The linebacker was a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection and graduated from Penn’s prestigious Wharton Business School in 2013. He has also taught a financial literacy seminar at his alma mater and taken an offseason job on Wall Street during his playing days.
So, for an athlete who played college sports before the NIL era, he’s about as qualified as you can be to lend a hand to today’s student-athletes as they navigate the business world.
Introducing Athletes.org, the company that Copeland and INFLCR founder Jim Cavale started, aimed to be a one-stop-shop to help student-athletes with just about any off-field/court issue.
Yes, that includes NIL help. The service won’t broker deals for players, but lawyers, accountants, and other professionals are on hand to answer questions. Cavale and Copeland have found a horde of them willing to donate their time for some pro bono work.
Slicing the Revenue Pie
Athletes.org isn’t meant to only facilitate relationships between individual athletes and the professionals looking to serve them. If everything works as planned, it will be far more collaborative than that. Athletes can organize based on their level, sport, or conference and come together to help each other and tackle the common issues that they face.
Some of those issues can be found in the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee’s final report, which it issued in January. In the words of co-chair and Ohio University AD Julie Cromer, the purpose was to “rapidly remake Division I to serve the needs of today’s student-athletes.” Cavale read that report.
“I thought it was great that they were looking at the so-called gross revenue pie that every school has every year for athletics,” he told Boardroom. “The categories where they were talking about investing like medical coverage or scholarship protections or degree completion funds, concussion protocols, governance participation, NIL advisory, mental health resources…they’re all great. And then the next thought I had was, how long will this take for schools to actually make these investments and athletes to actually have mental health resources and NIL advisory resources on campus?”
And even if those resources landed on every college campus, they would not do so equitably. In an era where Power 5 schools make tens of millions each year in media rights alone, how could an HBCU or a Division II school offer similar opportunities?
To now, Cavale is best known for founding INFLCR years before NIL went into effect in anticipation of that exact moment. He’s certainly no psychic, but he was able to read the tea leaves of an ever-changing landscape. AO is similar in that way.
The service is free of charge and is a step toward democratizing opportunity for college athletes. As Cavale puts it, it’s about giving athletes a seat at a table previously reserved for administrators and executives.
This wasn’t a table, however, that Cavale could assemble himself. He needed someone who has played their sport at the highest level — someone today’s players could emulate. That’s where Copeland comes in.
Ivy League Leadership
Brandon Copeland first met Jim Cavale at the Super Bowl LVII in Glendale. Knowing Copeland’s background, complete with a 10-year NFL career and business background, he had a feeling the former linebacker would be a good candidate to lead Athletes.org.
His feeling was almost immediately validated.
“Everything I already thought when I met him…he’s just a guy who has an amazing ability to be inquisitive and understand who you are and have empathy and consideration in a way that just creates initial engagement,” Cavale said.
The empathy shines through quickly when you talk to Copeland. To him, education and protection for the student-athlete go hand-in-hand. He’s heard the horror stories of athletes getting their first big paycheck, blowing it, and ending up in financial trouble down the line. With NIL, those first paychecks are coming even earlier, before some athletes are even able to take a business class or find a source for real financial advice.
“We don’t always feel comfortable raising our hand and asking the quote-unquote ‘silly question’ in the room,” Copeland said. “But none of us have ever learned this information, so a lot of these answers are being solved in real-time.”
It’s not just Copeland, either. Athletes.org has built a powerhouse Board of Directors, including former America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen and former Duke basketball player Reggie Love.
As pure as AO’s intentions might be, the service cannot exist without significant support. The organization’s for-profit arm enables AO to run without charging its users. JDS Sports and Will Ventures came aboard recently in a $3 million raise, bringing a great deal of expertise with them.
“If we learn together, grow together, we can make some money together one day,” Copeland said about the AO team. “And the goal is for us to work hard, to provide value to athletes, to provide a community in a safe space, and if the opportunity arises for us to help athletes make money, 100%, I hope that the for-profit side can make that happen.”
The Power of Organizing
Similar to how Cavale’s approach with INFLCR, he sees AO as a prelude to revenue sharing in college athletics.
But before we even get there, athletes need a clearer way to organize. They’re not university employees, which is just one reason why they haven’t formally unionized (yet Dartmouth may be working on that). What AO can do, however, is provide a place for athletes to come together based on their sport, conference, or level. Football players in the Big 12 will have different concerns than golfers in the NESCAC or basketball players in the America East.
“What’s important for Athletes.org is to get athletes to not only become members but, through their chapter, advocate for the best scenario,” Cavale said. “And that’s what I think is missing because one solution for everybody is just not going to work.”
It is important to note, however, that athletes.org on its own does not give players any particular power. Cavale says that will come naturally as more athletes join and their specific chapters grow stronger. He hopes that athletes’ collective voices will bring the powers that be to the table to talk through particular issues.
It’s a process. But Athletes.org is getting off the ground in anticipation of athletes being able to gain more agency and reap the rewards of college athletics even more — in whatever form that takes.
“It’s not just talk,” Copeland said. “We’re actually rolling up our sleeves and trying to do the work and trying to create change and I’m excited to lead athletes.org on this mission.”
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