Florida A&M President Larry Robinson huddled with his football team for one hour Tuesday over what one attorney describes as the “epic administrative blunder” that has more than 20 players still scurrying to regain their athletic eligibility.
Robinson emerged from the meeting promising that his HBCU institution would hire five new compliance employees and two new academic advisors in reaction to the ineligibility crisis that nearly prompted the athletes to not play Saturday night in North Carolina.
The attorney for Florida A&M’s returning Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land revealed Tuesday that the Rattlers were only moved to change their minds and board a six-hours-delayed team flight to North Carolina when they learned from Robinson and interim athletic director Michael Smith that three teammates had been cleared to play.
Public records previously obtained by USA TODAY Sports showed that Florida A&M would’ve owed North Carolina a $450,000 fee for canceling its participation in the game.
That would’ve been a hefty toll for Robinson's self-described “low-resources institution.”
By playing the Tar Heels, FAMU received $450,000.
“We know there was a lot of money at stake for FAMU and that FAMU didn’t want to lose that money,” said Land’s attorney, Tom Mars. “With the notice that those three players had been cleared, the players’ leadership council (of seniors and graduate students) saved them from all that pressure.”
Mars, who also represents ineligible right tackle Cam Covin, is a veteran attorney who’s been involved in nearly 100 of the “progress toward degree” waivers required to maintain their eligibility.
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Following a two-day wait for documents from FAMU, Mars said his review of Land's rejected waiver convinces him “there are significant grounds for appeal,” for the university to pursue.
“If they speed things up and let me help them, it won’t take long to have the appeal ready. Every day matters,” Mars said as Deion Sanders and Jackson State await FAMU in Sunday’s Orange Blossom Classic at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
“Knowing what I know of Isaiah and Cameron’s cases now, I can make an incredibly compelling argument on their behalf. Look, if a parent fails to file a tax return, the IRS doesn’t punish the kids. This is the college sports equivalent of doing just that, and I’ve got the paperwork that proves just that.”
Mars speculates Land’s situation is similar to many other teammates. Pointing to slippages tied to a one-person athletic department compliance staff, Mars said Land was first wrongly pointed by an academic advisor to one summer school class that didn’t count toward his major and degree progress.
“And the advisor signed the form,” Mars said.
The rash of ineligibility prompted 89 players to sign a five-page letter to university president Robinson last week detailing how they felt misadvised and underrepresented.
“I appreciated the letter I got, but I got more sense of the passion and the urgency around the issues when I spoke to them in person,” Robinson said following Tuesday’s hour-long face-to-face session with the players.
Robinson dodged accepting the blame in a post-meeting news conference.
“For those people who feel as if they were misadvised, they are speaking with our academic affairs people to see what that was and what might be done — if indeed that did occur," Robinson said. “It is a bit different, the academic advising for athletes. If they didn’t get that from the right person, that could’ve been the case. I’m not suggesting it was. All I’m trying to do now is look at the situation as it is now and (convey) that the team is working on our students’ behalf.”
In addition to immediately shifting two existing members of the university compliance program to athletics, Robinson said he will order all 18 academic advisors at FAMU to gain training in “some of the nuances associated with athletics — progression, GPA issues. It’s different from a typical student going from one level to the next.
“The misconception that people may have that we’re not supportive of FAMU athletics the way we should, that we don’t care about these young men is very disturbing to me because I know how much we care and put into this program to make it whole. We’ve got to do more, (but the suggestion) that we haven’t invested properly in the program, that’s what bothers me the most.”
In the FAMU-submitted waiver he reviewed of the linebacker Land, attorney Mars said FAMU’s compliance head missed the opportunity to more effectively advocate for the player.
“Having seen so many of these waiver requests, I can tell you the quality of the work from people who submit waiver requests varies from highly competent to malpractice,” Mars said. “I would not be surprised if these were the first,” waiver requests done by the interim FAMU compliance director, who also wears the hat of financial aid coordinator.
“Compliance requires advocacy. Isaiah’s waiver had one very clinical paragraph (from the compliance head) and Isaiah’s personal statement was only seven lines. I’ve seen others between seven and 13 pages long. It’s absolutely undisputable that FAMU made multiple mistakes.”
It’s his hope that the NCAA will rapidly review his waivers and rule quickly, making a “one-time exception” to clear the remaining Rattlers after FAMU “totally dropped the ball.”
FAMU coach Willie Simmons said his team leaves for Miami on Wednesday, and, "hopefully, we'll a get few more (players) by kickoff."