AO players association launches ACC chapters, board of directors

On3 imageby:Pete Nakos11/15/23


Jim Boeheim was named the head coach at Syracuse in 1976. When he took the job, the Big East had yet to be founded. TV deals with conferences were not running college sports yet.

After 47 years of coaching, he announced his retirement this past spring. The college athletics landscape went through significant change during his tenure, most notably with athletes finally able to monetize their name, image and likeness.

It’s not a perfect model, however, which is why he’s joined Athletes.Org (AO) as a board of director. The group founded by former INFLCR founder Jim Cavale and former Penn and NFL linebacker Brandon Copeland is structured similarly to other players’ associations, with chapters within sports and conferences based on participation.

“We have to figure it [NIL] out somehow, and I think it would be better if the athletes were more involved with us,” Boeheim told On3 on a phone call earlier this week. “We’ll see how that goes with this new group. It’s worth trying. That’s the way I look at it.”

Along with formalizing its board of directors, AO has also launched its first athlete chapters in Boeheim’s former coaching grounds. Each chapter is co-founded by current college athletes, with the ACC men’s basketball athletes co-founded by North Carolina’s RJ Davis and Armando Bacot and Duke’s Jeremy Roach. North Carolina’s Deja Kelly is taking the lead on the chapter for ACC women’s basketball athletes.

It’s a notable step in organizing athletes. The College Football Players Association organized its own chapter with Penn State football in the summer of 2022, but that was dismantled by the Big Ten.

Details on ACC athlete chapters

AO chapter co-founders will be “the face” of their chapters, working to sign up teammates to membership and holding voting on key issues in college sports. Voting results can be used publicly to advocate for athletes in conferences and at the national level.

The association also plans to get involved in group licensing NIL deals, which athletes in chapters will be allowed to vote on.

“You’re going to have a captain on every single team, a player on at least on every single team that’s the voice of the team,” Copeland said. “Now, although we have multiple members of every single team, that one player ends up being their ‘voice’ in terms of helping give feedback to AO on the key issues that everyone is making decisions about, but not necessarily taking athletes’ opinions into account as they make those.

“Taking my own experience with the NFL Players Association, there was a player rep. And every single team had a vote. We’re doing a similar structure coming down to college. But we’re not necessarily a union, we’re just the players association.”

Copeland declined to go into specifics on the number of athletes who have joined the ACC chapters but said the onboarding process has already started. Through the membership, athletes will have access to ask any question to the app, interact with a Pro bono expert and view a registry of AO-verified agents and collectives. AO is not a union, however, the organization intends to educate athletes on the current issues facing college sports and create chapters based on sports and conferences. 

On3 is a media partner with AO.

AO launches video series

Along with announcing its ACC chapters, the players’ association has launched a video series dubbed “A Seat At The Table.” Plans are for Cavale and Copeland to travel and visit with college athletes for a discussion on the current state of college sports.

The first edition was released Wednesday, featuring Davis, Bacot, Kelly, Roach and Duke’s Spencer Hubbard. Nearly 50 minutes long, the conversation shifts from why AO is needed to athletes discussing their experiences navigating NIL in the college sports world.

“I just think the whole state of college and the way things are going, a lot of changes are going to be made and going to happen,” Bacot said. “It’s inevitable. Organizing all the athletes and getting us all together is the main thing.”

Among the talking points in the video is employee status, which is only heating up. The National Labor Relations Board hearing against USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA started earlier this month. Plus, Judge Claudia Wilken granted class-action status for the three remaining damages classes in the House v. NCAA lawsuit, which seeks financial rewards for athletes denied NIL pay dating to 2016 as well as revenue-sharing from television deals.

“Being here is looking out for our partners,” Hubbard said. “Jeremy looking out for RJ or Armando looking out for Deja. We’re all one community, this is a sacrifice we’re making not just for the people in this room but for a greater cause.”

Players association formalizes board of directors

Along with Boeheim, AO’s board of directors is made up of Mit Winter (NIL attorney), Amy Huchthausen (former NCAA D1 Commissioner), Reggie Love (Apollo), Roman Harper (SEC Network analyst), Jason Ranne (Wasserman COO), Terri Smith (NFLPA COO), Sandy Barbour (former Penn State athletic director), Omari Hardwick (Actor) and Dean Jordan (Wasserman Media).

The former Syracuse head coach said he hopes NIL can get back to what it was meant to, with athletes signing endorsement deals. In the last couple of years during his time with the Orange, he had to spend time learning about booster-funded NIL collectives.

“It’d be nice if that was where it was intended, but because fan bases want to win, they’re gonna get the money together and they’re going make deals,” Boeheim said.

He’s convinced there is no going back. He doesn’t want to see athletes earn employee status, but he wants to ensure that players have a voice throughout the process. Revenue sharing is inevitable, with more and more money entering college sports.

“What I’ve been saying for three years is there’s no way out of this thing we’re in,” he said. “And I really don’t think employees status is a good thing.”