After a news-filled and chaotic offseason, college football returned last weekend with a collection of Week 0 games across the country. While a lot of the conversation was centered around the Big Ten clash between Nebraska and Northwestern in Dublin, there were other lower-profile games that took place. One of those matchups featured North Carolina and Florida A&M. Unsurprisingly, the Tar Heels came away with a lopsided win. However, the developments that occurred pregame and postgame have generated a lot of buzz in the college athletics industry this week.
Florida A&M, an HBCU FCS program, was set to depart Tallahassee for Chapel Hill on Friday morning before the 8:15 PM kickoff the following night. However, news began to break on Friday afternoon that the Rattlers would be without upwards of 20 players due to eligibility issues. This led to their flight being delayed into the evening and speculation that the game would not be played. Sources with knowledge of the situation claimed that FAMU players deliberated not playing the game and held a team vote to determine whether they would take the field with their depth chart significantly depleted. As we all know, football is a demanding sport where having a sufficient number of able players every game is an absolute must for the health and safety of everyone involved.
While it may have been a tough decision for the players on whether to play or not, it definitely wasn’t a tough decision for Florida A&M administrators. While the Rattler football team was in limbo back in Tallahassee on Friday, FAMU President Dr. Larry Robinson was reportedly already on campus in Chapel Hill Friday and made it clear that the expectation was to play the game despite the lack of available players.
Why would FAMU officials be so adamant that the game be played? Well, like many decisions that have been made in college sports lately: it was about the money. As an FCS football program, FAMU is capped at 63 scholarships while North Carolina can currently carry 85 scholarship players. It is a scenario that is often played out in college football called a “buy game.” That’s where a higher-level FBS program takes on one from a lower level and pays them (quite well at the Power Five level) with the expectation that it will be an easy win. In this case, North Carolina was scheduled to pay FAMU $450,000, but only if the game were in fact played.
So while the Rattler players ultimately decided to play the game, there definitely could have been added pressure put on them by those in power at Florida A&M. Schools like FAMU don’t receive mega contracts from media rights deals or lots of ticket revenue from filling 100,000 seat stadiums. Playing a buy game is essential for funding, not just the football program, but also the athletic department overall.
After the Rattlers fell 56-24 in a spirited effort given their lack of depth, the players inked a demanding letter to the university highlighting a large number of deficiencies in athletics oversight and school leadership. The letter addressed to President Roberts, pinpoints a lack of timely financial aid payments, academic support, compliance, summer housing, meals, representation on the latest athletic director search committee, and ticket allotments for families.
This is a move that is somewhat unprecedented in college athletics. Very rarely do you see players calling out university officials for any reason, let alone list a number of significant issues. But as news keeps on coming in about the situation, the players are probably well within their right to be doing this.
It was very damaging to the morale of our football team to read on various media outlets, '26 FAMU Football Players Ruled Ineligible,'" the players wrote. "This narrative implies that we are not performing in the classroom. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. The issue at hand is not academic performance, but procedural issues within the registrar's office, compliance department, and academic advisement.
It has been reported that FAMU has a dearth of compliance staffers in their athletic department, which can obviously lead to a number of eligibility issues that surfaced last weekend for the Rattlers. Prominent attorney Tom Mars told ESPN he has signed documentation that a FAMU star player was advised to take the wrong number of courses this summer, leading to his ineligibility and eventual four-game NCAA suspension. It’s likely that wasn’t the only case of bad advice, given that 26 Rattlers were ultimately unable to take the field against the Tar Heels.
Where things go from here is definitely up in the air. FAMU officials responded with a statement reading “FAMU is committed to upholding high standards and rigorous adherence to NCAA guidelines.” “After the assessments of Spring and Summer 2022 academic progress, the Compliance team exercised its due diligence to complete the certification process on August 11, before the Fall sports season began.” Obviously, something was missing in that certification process, or we wouldn’t be where we are today.
In this new era of college athletics with the advent of NIL, the transfer portal, and social media, college athletes have more power than ever before. By writing that scathing letter, the FAMU football team used some of that power for good, highlighting the change that needs to occur for the betterment of their student-athlete experience in Tallahassee. There has been a lot of talk about college athletes becoming employees and receiving direct compensation from their schools, and deservedly so. However, the first and foremost priority of athletic departments across the country is to create the best experience and provide support to their student-athletes. When that’s not the case, change needs to happen. Good on the Florida A&M players for standing up for themselves.
Florida A&M takes on Jackson State this upcoming Saturday. Hopefully, they’ll have more players eligible to take on Deion Sanders’ squad in the Orange Blossom Classic.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5