Florida A&M Rattlers football players pen letter saying deficiencies in athletic department led to ineligibility

On Friday, the Florida A&M football players considered not going 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 earned the school $450,000 to play.

In the days since, details have emerged about the turmoil, as FAMU’s athletic staffing shortages led in part to 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 the school has only 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 was the financial aid officer, who was forced to do the same job when the compliance officer left and had no compliance experience.

The 26 ineligible players include three starters, one of whom is Isaiah Land, the leading defender in the FCS last season and an NFL draft prospect for 2023. Simmons said Land and the another teammate “misplaced his mind” during 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 discussion within our team, we decided to play at UNC,” the letter said. “We have decided that we will not play for this institution, but for our families, teammates, classmates, our passionate fan base and our coaches who have prepared us and loved us.”

The letter added that they knelt in protest of the school’s two postgame songs and will continue “until meaningful changes are made that facilitate a positive student-athlete experience.”

Among the complaints in the letter were issues with financial aid on time, lack of support staff and academic compliance, lack of access to summer school classes, reduction of available courtesy tickets to families of players and student-athletes who are not represented in the search for a new athletic director. Former FAMU AD Kortne Gosha, well-regarded in the industry, resigned in April and was soon hired by Tulane as senior associate athletic director.

“I really support them, it’s their feelings and it’s not forced on 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 who are underserved.”

A university spokesperson told ESPN the school is reviewing the letter and plans to respond at a later date.

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 for four games for lack of credits, which coach Willie Simmons said came because the understaffed athletic department didn’t give them the right advice.

Simmons emphasized to ESPN that none of the players failed a class this summer, they just took and passed the classes they were told to pass and didn’t realize until August that they were lacking. Both Land and Covin are underdeveloped to a degree due to shortcomings. Simmons said the NCAA cut the one-year suspension to four games.

Both Land and Covin have retained noted attorney Tom Mars, a veteran of helping college players in connection with NCAA eligibility. Mars said the two players are gathering information to file an appeal with the NCAA to restore their eligibility.

“No one in college sports would think it was fair or right to punish these football players for following their advisor’s advice when they did nothing wrong,” Mars told ESPN. “Under these circumstances, if the NCAA needs a pound of flesh, they should take it away from FAMU and not punish these players.”

Land’s anger about the situation revolves in part because of his draft stock. He passed up the chance to play at UNC, which will be a showcase game with seven NFL scouts in attendance against FAMU’s best opponent this season. He said there’s a part of him that regrets not transferring after entering the portal this spring, because he said he got more than 30 offers, which he said included Georgia, Texas and LSU.

He said he was happy to be back with his teammates and that he played more fighting for his brothers. But he said he knew the logistics would be better and the exposure would be better at a larger school and believes FAMU’s administrative inadequacies let him down.

FAMU’s 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.