Why Sean Clifford?

Why is Penn State’s veteran quarterback taking a central role in re-imagining the financial arrangements of big-time college football?

The main reasons seem to be that he’s interested, directly affected, holds a leadership role in his locker room and has a platform. As a team captain and 4th-year starter, maybe he feels obligated. The breakdown and reconstruction of Power 5 football is well under way, and Clifford isn’t the type to sit back and wait to see how it shakes out. As someone who took up chess a couple years ago to improve his mental game on the field, he’s always trying to think several moves ahead.

With the Nittany Lions’ opener at Purdue just 5 weeks away, the 24-year-old who already holds a degree in Public Relations went in front of the cameras Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. As someone pursuing a second degree in Journalism, he surely knew what questions were coming.

Is this a distraction? Has he inadvertently put himself in an uncomfortable spot between a fledgling players union on one side and his program and the Big Ten on the other?

The Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the situation with this sub-headline a couple days ago:

“Nittany Lions QB Sean Clifford was an early leader in working with the College Football Players Association. Then Penn State and the Big Ten found out, and now things are less settled.”

Prior to Media Days, Clifford clarified where he’s at in a detailed statement, part of which reads: “It is important to state that my dialogues with my coach, athletics director and commissioner were conducted as a student-athlete. To characterize my dialogues as being on behalf of a union or as a union member would be inaccurate.” BlueWhite Illustrated/On 3 has the full statement, plus a statement from new AD Pat Kraft and further context and background here.

“First and foremost, it’s all about football right now,” Clifford said during a B1G Network interview Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Camp is [beginning on] Sunday for us, and that’s the main focus. It’s the only focus. … But to say that I want to make a difference for college athletes moving forward … of course.”

Sitting alongside teammates Ji’Ayir Brown and PJ Mustipher, he continued: “It’s not about me, it’s not about us. It’s about everybody. And to be in a conference with a commissioner who’s so open to change, to talking, with a coach and an AD that are so willing to have those conversations, it’s just a blessing. … I’m proud of all the conversations that we’ve had.”

Clifford dove into this new reality early on, starting Limitless NIL shortly after laws changed to allow college players to trade on their name, image and likeness. His stated goals are not only to help fellow players cash in but empower them to bargain with their universities and leagues over work conditions and health and other benefits. The players are gaining a voice like never before, and Clifford seems to want to ensure that they use it well.

As a 24-year-old 6th-year senior, Clifford certainly should have as firm a grasp on the player experience as anyone. He’s ideally suited to represent the 18-year-old players just arriving on Big Ten campuses, as well as those upperclassmen who don’t share his entrepreneurial and/or leadership bents.

Good or bad for PSU in long run?

The guess here is that Ryan Day, Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the B1G’s coaches are perfectly happy that Penn State’s quarterback has seemingly chosen to be the face of player bargaining. Yes, some dramatic changes are surely coming, but in the meantime they can conduct business as usual in fall workouts. Penn State seems to have stumbled into being the test case for macro-level discussions about divvying up the TV money in the Big Ten and college football at large.

On the other hand, Penn State might be ahead of the curve here. Franklin appears poised to pull in a 2nd consecutive top 10 recruiting class, one that includes a 4-star Alabama prospect flipping from the Crimson Tide to the Nittany Lions. The program is drawing from a wide swath of the country. Maybe these recruits know some things very player-friendly are in the works in State College. If nothing else, they know Clifford is speaking up on their behalf. And that Franklin and the rest of the Penn State administration are listening.

“I’m very, very proud of the relationships we have with our players,” Franklin said Wednesday during his Media Days press appearance. “Having these open discussions and dialog with your players is important. … That’s the nature of college athletics and college football right now. You better be willing and able to have discussions that maybe we haven’t had in the past.

“There’s been more changes in college football over the past 3 years than probably over the past 25. … I’m blessed and fortunate to have a team and an administration that’s willing to have these conversations.

“At the end of the day, our players, and specifically Sean, want what’s best for college athletics, want what’s best for Penn State, want what’s best for the Big Ten.”

Good or bad overall?

When Alabama’s Nick Saban carps about fellow SEC member Texas A&M essentially buying players, you know these are uncharted waters. When the game’s top coach feels the foundations shaking such that he thinks he’s on the short end of an uneven playing field, it’s definitely a strange inflection point in the sport.

The changes are coming so rapidly, it’s impossible to see how or when this will all shake out. Differences in state laws have created an unequal NIL playing field. A Supreme Court ruling has seemingly opened the door for players to be considered employees, probably as soon as the first group of players gains standing and moves its argument through the legal system.

It’s not hard to imagine a day when athletes won’t have to be students at all. An education could be part of their compensation, or not. It’s impossible to know how crazy things will get once college football goes through the looking glass. Will everything be on the table? Is 4 years of eligibility set in stone? Redshirts and roster limits? Can the leagues, or whatever organizing body that replaces the NCAA, gain any concessions for its side? Could healthy players be required to play in bowl games, rather than opting out to avoid injury and prepare for the NFL Draft?

It’s all rather disconcerting for the average fan, who just wants to watch a game, whether in person or in front of the TV.

Here’s the best I can do for some comforting thoughts:

  • Our games have always survived. The NFL and the NBA had mergers. Dunking and the forward pass were made legal. Baseball adopted the DH and inter-league play.

  • Think of the scene in Hoosiers. There will still be 100 yards between the end zones; the crossbar will still be set at 10 feet; there will still be 11 players per side.

The more the money issues are brought from under the table and put on it, the less hypocrisy fans will have to stomach.

Coaches don’t have much option other than to beg for funding. Ryan Day told Ohio State supporters the Buckeyes needed $13 million or so per year in NIL support, leading Jim Harbaugh to suggest Michigan fans should be able to collect twice as much for the cause. The name of Clifford’s agency, Limitless NIL, pretty much says it all. The booster behavior that got SMU the death penalty in the 1980s is acceptable now.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said Wednesday.

If most of the future national titles go to the highest bidders, that won’t be anything terribly new. Dedication measured in dollars. If changes are done well, at least the rules will be clear to all involved. And Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson and the like won’t miss a beat. But maybe the next tier of programs can rise up. Penn State, with its huge alumni base and 100,000-plus home attendance average, certainly has resources and motivation.

While it’s all shaking out, the show will go on. Clifford ended the BTN group interview reminding his teammates and others about what it’s all about.

“It’s about having fun, too,” he said. “I’ve had a blast this winter, this spring and this summer with this group. … It’s time to have some fun in fall camp.”

Let’s hope that doesn’t change, for Clifford or anyone else.