On Friday, Florida A&M football players considered not traveling to North Carolina to play their season opener in Chapel Hill. They eventually decided to play, despite 26 ineligible players, and lost to the Tar Heels, 56-24, in a game that the school earned $450,000 for playing.
In the days since, details have surfaced about the unrest, as deficiencies in FAMU's athletic staffing led in part to the ineligible players and the team considering not playing.
On Sunday, coach Willie Simmons detailed to ESPN in a phone interview some of the athletic department's shortcomings. He said that the school has just one academic advisor, down from a department of four in 2018 when the school had three advisors and a learning specialist. He also said the school's compliance officer is also the financial aid officer, who was pressed into doing both jobs when the compliance official left and lacks compliance experience.
Among the 26 ineligible players included three starters, one of whom is Isaiah Land, the top defender in the FCS last season and an NFL draft prospect for 2023. Simmons said that Land and one other teammate were "misadvised" on their course load leading to a four-game NCAA suspension, which Land said left him "lost and confused" about his school.
On Monday, more than 80 FAMU players signed a scathing letter to university officials, a copy of which was obtained by WTXL television in Tallahassee.
"On Friday, after much dialogue within our team, we decided to play at UNC," the letter states. "We determined that we would not play for this institution, but for our families, teammates, classmates, our rabid fan base and our coaches who had prepared us and love us."
The letter went on to say that they knelt in protest during two school songs played in the postgame and will continue to do so "until significant changes that facilitate a positive student-athlete experience are made"
Among the complaints in the letter are issues with financial aid arriving on time, lack of staffing in academic support and compliance, lack of access to summer school classes, cutting down available courtesy tickets to players' families and student-athletes not being represented in the search for a new athletic director. Former FAMU AD Kortne Gosha, who is well regarded in the industry, resigned in April and soon after was hired by Tulane as a senior associate athletic director.
"I definitely support them, these are their feelings and they haven't been coerced into them," Simmons told ESPN on Monday night. "I'm proud of those guys for advocating for themselves and joining the long legacy of people at Florida A&M standing up for those that are underserved."
A university spokesman told ESPN the school is reviewing the letter and plans to respond later.
Land led the FCS in both sacks (19) and tackles for loss (25.5) last season. Land and starting right tackle Cam Covin, both redshirt seniors, were suspended four games because they came up short on credits, which coach Willie Simmons said came because the understaffed athletic department didn't provide them the right advice.
Simmons stressed to ESPN that neither player failed a class this summer, they simply took and passed the classes they were told to pass and didn't realize until August that they were short. Both Land and Covin lacked progress to a degree because of the shortcomings. Simmons said the NCAA cut a yearlong suspension to four games.
Both Land and Covin have retained noted attorney Tom Mars, a veteran of helping college players in eligibility binds with the NCAA. Mars said both players are gathering information to file an appeal with the NCAA to restore their eligibility.
"There's not a single person in college sports who'd think it's fair or right to punish these football players for following the advice of their advisor when they did nothing wrong," Mars told ESPN. "Under these circumstances, if the NCAA needs a pound of flesh, they should take it out of FAMU and not punish these players."
Land's anger about the situation revolves in part because of his draft stock. He missed the chance to play at UNC, which would have been a showcase game with seven NFL scouts in attendance against FAMU's best opponent this season. He said there's part of him that regrets not transferring after entering the portal this spring, as he said he got more than 30 offers, which he said included Georgia, Texas and LSU.
He said he's happy to be back with his teammates and plays harder fighting for his brothers. But he said he knows the logistics would have been smoother and exposure better at a bigger school and believes FAMU's administrative deficiencies have let him down.
The FAMU letter comes with the team on the cusp of another high-profile game. On Sunday, FAMU plays Jackson State on ESPN2 in the Orange Blossom Classic.