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Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons (left) speaks with Jackson State coach Deion Sanders at a game.

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Florida A&M University leadership is facing demands for accountability after 26 football players were declared ineligible for their season opener, which the players blamed on inadequate academic advising in a scathing letter to administrators.

The letter, signed by nearly 90 players, caught the attention of national media and prompted an emergency Board of Trustees meeting in which members called on administrators to redress the many grievances listed by the football team and vowed to hold them more accountable.

In addition to a lack of academic advising, the team complained about delays in financial aid disbursement, scholarship packages that don’t cover summer classes, a lack of athlete representation on the search committee for a new athletic director and a decrease in tickets allotted to players.

Players say the root cause of ineligibility comes down to insufficient academic advising resulting in NCAA compliance issues, with only two staff members serving the entire athletic department in those areas. The team’s letter to the administration mentioned Isaiah Land, a highly decorated defensive player, who was reportedly told to take two summer classes to meet the league’s academic progress goals when he actually needed three classes. (Land is one of several players who has since been reinstated.)

Now Florida A&M faces mounting pressure from football players, trustees, alumni and outside observers as the university seeks to staff up amid scrutiny, broader hiring woes across higher ed and budget constraints that persist at many historically Black colleges and universities.

Demands for Accountability

Down 26 players against the University of North Carolina, Florida A&M suffered a blowout loss of 56 to 24 in its Aug. 28 season opener, a game the team debated not playing at all before deciding to make the trip. After the loss, players knelt in protest as Florida A&M’s famed marching band played the university’s fight song. It’s a form of protest that the team has said it plans to continue this season until significant improvements are made around the issues raised.

The letter from the team to Florida A&M president Larry Robinson was dated the same day.

“We came to FAMU to better our lives and we are expressing concerns about impediments to that goal,” the letter read. “We are not interested in further empty dialogue with you or your staff. We want to see changes made now! We have given our bodies and shed blood, sweat and tears on behalf of this institution. It’s time for FAMU to reciprocate the love.”

Florida A&M administrators quickly issued a public response, avowing confidence in the university’s processes. The statement also pointed out that 13 of the university’s 14 athletic teams fully meet the academic progress rate requirements for NCAA compliance.

But as pressure ratcheted up, administrators struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the validity of player complaints about woefully understaffed areas such as academic advising. Now Florida A&M is seeking to add seven new positions in advising and compliance. Additionally, all academic advisers will receive training on athletic compliance—including the 18 who work not only with athletes but also with the broader student population.

Robinson has stopped short of blaming insufficient academic advising for the 26 ineligible players, but he has met with the team and promised to investigate the issues raised in the letter and in conversation.

“We’re letting those who feel like they were misadvised to speak with academic affairs to see what that was and what can be done if that did occur,” Robinson said at a press conference.

Football players aren’t the only ones demanding accountability—so are Florida A&M’s trustees.

In an emergency meeting, the Board of Trustees listened to an update from administrators, then chided them for failing to address the underlying issues that triggered the discontent. Trustees also insisted on greater oversight, including a weekly meeting between Robinson and the board chair.

“A heightened level of accountability is demanded from this board,” said Chair Kelvin Lawson.

Others offered more pointed critiques.

“The alumni base, as well as the trustees, are really getting tired of hearing the cleanup work that is taking place at the university. And we need for you, President Robinson—and I want to be very clear—you, as the leader, we need for you to express to your leadership team that everyone is being held accountable to manage their area and then manage the information to you,” Trustee Otis Cliatt said in the meeting, adding that some issues, such as financial aid delays, are persistent.

At the meeting, Robinson noted that changes are already in motion at Florida A&M. In addition to adding seven new positions—five in compliance and two in academic advising for athletes—the president said the university will add financial support for the summer session, and that the ticket allotment has already been upgraded from two per player per game to four.

Florida A&M has since announced that four players have been reinstated.

Two of those players, Land and Cam Covin, retained attorney Tom Mars, who has a background in such issues. Mars criticized Florida A&M’s “gross negligence” in a statement.

“I don’t think anyone in college sports has ever witnessed a bigger blunder on the part of a university or a more unfair punishment aimed at the players—the only people in this mess who did everything right,” Mars wrote in the statement posted online. “If a parent fails to file a tax return, the IRS doesn’t punish their kids. But this is the college sports equivalent of doing just that.”

Florida A&M did not respond to a request for comment seeking details on ongoing eligibility issues but will reportedly request the reinstatement of multiple other players later this week, according to local media.

An Uneven Playing Field

The scrutiny at Florida A&M comes at a time when HBCU football is finally in the spotlight, thanks in part to the presence and efforts of Jackson State University head coach Deion Sanders, an NFL Hall of Famer who has called out professional teams for overlooking talent at HBCUs. Sanders also sent shock waves through the college football world when his team landed the nation’s top-ranked football recruit, beating out big-time NCAA Division I powerhouse programs.

Jackson State, a Florida A&M conference foe, beat the hobbled Rattlers 56 to 3 on Saturday.

Though HBCUs have recently garnered new attention, many struggle with ongoing issues, including a lack of funding and aging infrastructure. In their letter to administrators, Florida A&M players flagged a variety of issues—including food and housing insecurity. And that’s not an issue that Florida A&M struggles with alone; similar concerns were raised at an HBCU presidents’ dinner in Washington, D.C., in August.

Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina, said at the dinner that she had recently learned that 14 members of her football team were food insecure.

“I brought in a health expert to talk to [the team] about nutrition. And he said, ‘How many of you eat healthy?’ Some students raised their hands, and he said, ‘What about the rest of you? Why don’t you eat?’ And one kid stood up and said, ‘Because I can’t afford to,’” Artis said in August.

Like so many aspects of higher education, athletic programs vary greatly depending on geography, race and financial investment. While some athletes struggle, others have access to professional-level facilities. 

For HBCU athletes, little has changed even in the new era of college sports, where players can profit off their name, image and likeness. While University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young signed six-figure deals before even starting a game, HBCU athletes haven’t fielded the same kind of offers, even as many struggle to afford food, housing and other basic needs.

On3, a website that tracks deals and calculates and ranks individual athletes’ NIL value, puts Young’s valuation at $3.2 million. Of the top 100 college football players in On3’s NIL rankings, only three come from HBCUs: all three play for Jackson State, and two of the three are Sanders’s sons. Looking at On3’s NIL rankings for the top 100 college basketball players, only one is at an HBCU, albeit in the top spot. However, that player, Shaqir O’Neal, at Texas Southern University, has yet to play a game, suggesting his market value is tied less to his on-court performance in college than to his status as the son of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. (This paragraph has been updated to correct the name of the university Shaqir O'Neal attends.) 

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