For Florida A&M, Getting on the Field Is Just One of Many Problems – The New York Times

  • September 11, 2022

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The university’s football players nearly skipped their opening game in protest of their mismanaged athletic department. Recent history shows far more dysfunction within the university’s sports program.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Here’s what comes with being a football player at Florida A&M: getting booted from the dorms during training camp and sleeping in your car. Bad or uncertain advice from an overwhelmed staff about what classes to sign up for. Monthslong waits for the scholarship check that covers your meals and rent.
And, in an especially dismissive twist, finding that the complimentary ticket allotment was slashed to two from four.
What felt like a shared secret for the Florida A&M football team became an open one when players at one of the nation’s largest and highest-ranked historically Black universities spent more than six hours deliberating whether to get on a plane to North Carolina for their season-opening game after the N.C.A.A. declared 26 players ineligible. The team, lacking one-third of its travel roster, ultimately boarded the plane.
Athletes at historically Black colleges and universities often are no stranger to struggle, their institutions routinely deprived of the resources common at predominantly white institutions. Financial woes aside, Florida A&M stands out because of a litany of past compliance failures and administrative dysfunction that stretches back years.
The fiasco that nearly wiped out the North Carolina game resonated in a way that past failures had not, leaving alumni — many of whom have a deep affinity for their school and a desire to be part of something exceptional — vexed once again.
That was clear when the university’s president was compelled last week to sit before the board of trustees and pledge to do better.
“The alumni base as well as the trustees are really getting tired of hearing the cleanup work that is taking place at the university,” Otis Cliatt, a trustee and former football player at the school, told President Dr. Larry Robinson at an emergency board meeting on Sept. 2 that attracted more than 700 observers via videoconference.
Many knew by then about what had happened to two of the Rattlers’ best players, who could not travel to North Carolina because they said they had been given incorrect advice about which summer-school classes they needed to take.
Cameron Covin, an offensive tackle, said he received A’s in two summer classes he was told would make him eligible — Black psychology and basketball — but later learned that he needed four additional credits.
“When people hear ‘ineligible,’ the first thing they think is that people are failing classes. It’s not that,” said Covin, a senior who is majoring in sociology. “They weren’t giving us the right classes. You go to advisers as relief. We’re not questioning this; we’re doing what they’re saying.”
Defensive end Isaiah Land, a senior who is majoring in sociology, said he was told after the spring semester that he needed six units, so he enrolled in three two-unit classes: basketball, bowling and aquatics, which he passed. But a week before the opening game, he was told that he actually needed to pass nine units, Land said.
“Even if they say they were wrong, I can never get that game back,” said Land, who has garnered interest from N.F.L. scouts.
The current mess is only the latest one.
Historically Black colleges and universities have experienced a boom in the wake of activism set off by the murder of George Floyd. Applications have soared. Stephen Curry endowed the golf program at Howard University; Chris Paul has put his considerable business clout into funding scholarships at H.B.C.U.s; and former N.F.L. stars have become coaches, including Deion Sanders at Jackson State and Eddie George at Tennessee State.
Florida A&M has an apparel agreement with LeBron James and Nike.
But at a moment when big-time college athletics are so flush with cash that there are calls to pay players, H.B.C.U.s operate in a different realm. Those that receive state funding through land grants receive tens of millions less each year than their predominantly white counterparts, according to a study by Forbes. In 2020, Florida A&M received $2,600 less per student than the University of Florida.
In athletics, the difference is more stark. Last year, Florida State, whose campus is separated from Florida A&M by railroad tracks, outspent its neighbor in athletics by 15 to 1, according to USA Today.
So while Florida A&M’s stadium and its football facility have been renovated in recent years, there isn’t enough money to put goal posts on the football practice field. “It’s not the greatest,” said kicker Jose Romo-Martinez, who nevertheless has made both field goals he attempted this season.
Willie Simmons, Florida A&M’s football coach, broke the news to his seniors on Aug. 26 that a large swath of the team would not be eligible the next night for their season opener. For Simmons, the moment had a familiar echo. He had received bad news in the same meeting room 19 years earlier.
A former star high school quarterback from Tallahassee who went to Clemson, he had transferred home to play his final season at Florida A&M, only to be told that he would need to sit out a season because the program was moving up a division the next year. He left immediately and finished his college career at The Citadel.
“Something needs to be done,” Simmons said, sitting in his office recently. A whiteboard listed the players — by position — who were not yet eligible. “Maybe it’s going to take ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable, but things need to change.”
Simmons’s players initially told him they did not want to go to North Carolina because there were too few offensive linemen and receivers. They reconsidered after talks with Robinson, the school president, and Michael Smith, the interim athletic director, and after a handful of key players were cleared.
The decision allowed Florida A&M to keep a $450,000 payout from North Carolina for the game.
Despite playing short-handed, the Rattlers stayed within 11 points of the Tar Heels until late in the third quarter. They eventually fell, 56-24.
“If we played the game, we thought everything might get swept under the rug,” said Chris Faddoul, a senior punter who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and is working on a master’s in sports management. “If we didn’t play the game, what’s the domino effect? If we don’t play, it’s national news. It shines a light on the issue. All the questions — is it going to be a one-game thing? What about sponsors? What about all the people who buy tickets? When you mess with someone’s money, that turns heads. There was a big debate in the room.”
On a recent night after practice, Simmons told his players he expected the same effort in the classroom that they had shown on the field. “Let’s make it known that we’re not a bunch of dumbasses,” he told the team. “Get there early and sit in front.”
In an interview, Simmons pleaded for more help so that study halls could be monitored by academic counselors instead of coaches. He noted that Florida A&M is ranked as the top public H.B.C.U. in the country by U.S. News and World Report; its 33 percent acceptance rate is on par with Florida and Florida State, and lower than renowned H.B.C.U.s such as Howard, Morehouse and Spelman.
“To be continued to be penalized for systemic issues is beyond frustrating,” Simmons said. “This school is too great in so many other areas for this to be the black eye of this university.”
Florida A&M has been on N.C.A.A. probation for nearly a decade, a result of two investigations involving eligibility issues. In 2019, the university forced out three high-ranking financial officers after an audit discovered up to $3 million had been improperly shifted to athletics to cover budget deficits.
A new athletic director, Kortne Gosha, improved the department’s financial footing and boosted its profile, but his tenure ended in a tangle of investigations that only deepened the sense of dysfunction. It started when Gosha and one of his deputies, Michael Johnson, asked the university to look into what they said was an anonymous complaint about equipment theft.
Johnson also claimed he had been groped by a state legislator who was related to a track coach that Gosha and Johnson had been trying to fire. Gosha and Johnson said the legislator, Ramon Alexander, tried to interfere with the firing. Alexander denied that and told The Tallahassee Democrat that he and Johnson had a consensual relationship, which Johnson disputed. Alexander did not return calls from The New York Times.
The theft allegations boomeranged on Gosha and Johnson after investigators concluded that they made inconsistent statements and didn’t respond to record requests. A review of Johnson’s laptop found he had deleted files, something he had been warned not to do.
Johnson was fired in January. Gosha resigned in April, eight months short of the end of his three-year contract, after yet another investigation determined he could be fired for cause. Gosha, now an associate athletic director at Tulane, and Johnson, who worked briefly for the Detroit Lions, declined to speak on the record to The Times. They have filed whistle-blower complaints against Florida A&M, the precursor to a lawsuit. Johnson has also filed a discrimination complaint.
“They railroaded these guys because they reported things that the university didn’t want anybody to know about,” said Marie Mattox, an attorney representing the pair.
Soon, Florida A&M will have its eighth athletic director since 2010. The university interviewed six candidates to replace Gosha last week.
Robinson has pledged to hire five new compliance officials and two academic advisers for athletics by December — and also restored the ticket allotment to four per player.
“One of my fundamental challenges is to make sure that, first, we select the right people to begin with — people who have a commitment and an appreciation of the environment,” Robinson, when asked how he could create stability, said in an interview.
Among the more pressing matters is to raise the football team’s Academic Progress Rate — the N.C.A.A.’s academic report card — which is last this year among the 257 Division I schools that play football. Next year, penalties that had been paused early in the coronavirus pandemic will resume for schools whose scores fall below a minimum threshold, putting programs at risk of another postseason ban or new scholarship reductions.
A clear sign of players’ discontent was visible late last month on a second-floor hallway of the Gaither Gym Complex, where athletes lined up at opposite ends outside two offices.
One line was for the department’s lone academic adviser for 300 athletes. The other was for a financial aid coordinator serving as interim compliance director — the only person in the athletic department tasked with making sure athletes meet N.C.A.A. eligibility requirements.
“It looked like guys hanging out, waiting to get into a club,” Simmons, the coach, said.
In 2019, an N.C.A.A. investigation found that over a six-year period Florida A&M had allowed 93 athletes to play even though they were not eligible. It slapped the school, already on probation from a 2015 case, with an additional five years of probation, along with fines, scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions and postseason bans for six sports, including football. The violations were termed Level 1-Aggravated, considered the most egregious.
There was, though, a bright spot in the report: The panel lauded the school for hiring an experienced compliance staff and shoring up its eligibility certification procedures. But at least four compliance officials — including all those mentioned in the report — are now gone.
Florida A&M is working to hire its 11th compliance director since 2010.
This summer, an influx of 34 new football players and 24 players who needed summer school credits to maintain their eligibility overwhelmed the school’s skeleton compliance staff. The athletic department was so buried in paperwork that last week the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the university compliance office sent in reinforcements to help with an assortment of cases.
TJ Demas, a freshman offensive lineman, scrambled to have his high school send his final transcripts to Florida A&M — something nobody had told him was required — so he could fly to North Carolina the morning of the game. Faddoul, the punter, could not immediately register for classes because of a graduation hold — even though he has photos of himself accepting his diploma at a commencement ceremony in May.
“I’m good! I’m good! I’m good!” Kyle Jackson, a senior defensive end who is studying engineering, exclaimed into his phone as he fought back tears upon learning he had been cleared.
All but eight players have now been cleared — including Land and Covin, whose four-game suspensions were rescinded in time for them to play against Jackson State last Sunday.
The players got Robinson’s attention when they sent him — and the board of trustees — a five-page letter, signed by 89 of them, detailing grievances that extended far beyond compliance snafus.
No issue spoke to their sense of belittlement like not getting their scholarship checks on time.
Quarterback Jeremy Moussa, who transferred from Vanderbilt last January, said he did not receive his until shortly before the end of the spring semester, requiring him to pay rent and meals out of his pocket. Moussa was able to cover those costs, but he said some teammates received eviction notices and might see their credit scores lowered.
Few have borne the brunt of Florida A&M’s administrative dysfunction more than Bryan Crawford.
A senior offensive tackle who is married with a 1-year-old son, Crawford said he had to borrow money from relatives to pay the $700 rent on his family’s apartment for August and September and for child care while his wife works as a nurse. Crawford worked two jobs over the summer, cleaning apartments when they turned over for new tenants and working concert security until 3 a.m.
Crawford had injured a pectoral muscle during training camp, but with only seven lineman able to play against North Carolina, he felt compelled to play rather than fully heal. “It called for desperate measures,” he said. By halftime, he left with a torn pectoral muscle that will keep him out at least a month.
On Sunday, Crawford stood on the sidelines, having driven from Tallahassee to heed an internal call “to be with my brothers” as Florida A&M was routed by Jackson State, 59-3.
That embarrassment, at least, ended with the final whistle.
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