Florida A&M interim president Larry Robinson huddled with his football team for an hour Tuesday over what one attorney is calling an “epic administrative blunder” with more than 20 players still scrambling to regain athletic fitness.
Robinson emerged from the meeting pledging that his HBCU institution would hire five new compliance staffers and two new academic advisors in response to the eligibility crisis that almost caused athletes not to play in North Carolina Saturday night.
North Carolina won comfortably, 56-24.
The attorney for returning Florida A&M Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land announced Tuesday that the Rattlers were only persuaded to change their minds and board a six-hour-delayed team flight to North Carolina when they flew from Robinson and interim athletic director Michael Smith these three experienced teammates were cleared to play.
Public records obtained earlier by USA TODAY Sports showed that Florida owed A&M North Carolina a $450,000 fee for canceling its participation in the game.
That would have been a heavy toll on Robinson’s self-proclaimed “poorly resourced institution.”
Playing the Tar Heels earned FAMU $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. “By notifying that these three players have been acquitted, the Players’ Leadership Council (made up of seniors and graduate students) has saved them from all that pressure.”
Mars, who also represents ineligible right tackle Cam Covin, is a veteran attorney who has been involved in nearly 100 of the “progress toward closure” waivers required to maintain his eligibility.
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After a two-day wait for documents from FAMU, Mars said his review of Land’s denied waiver convinced him there were “significant appeals” that the university could pursue.
“If you speed things up and let me help you, it won’t be long before the appeal is done. Every day counts,” said Mars as Deion Sanders and Jackson State await FAMU at the Orange Blossom Classic at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
“Now that I know what I know about the cases of Isaiah and Cameron, I can make an incredibly compelling case for them. Look, if a parent doesn’t file a tax return, the IRS doesn’t penalize the kids. This is the college sports equivalent of that and I have the paperwork to prove it.”
Mars speculates that Land’s situation is similar to that of many other teammates. Pointing to slips associated with a compliance officer at a one-person athletic department, Mars said Land was first misdirected by an academic advisor to a summer school class that didn’t count towards his major and college progress.
“And the counselor signed the form,” Mars said.
The rash of denials prompted 89 players last week to sign a five-page letter to University President Robinson detailing how they felt misadvised and underrepresented.
“I really appreciated the letter I received, but I have more of a sense of the passion and urgency of the issues when I spoke to them personally,” Robinson said after Tuesday’s hour-long in-person session with the players.
Robinson evaded accepting the blame in a press conference after the meeting.
“For those who feel misadvised, speak to our academic affairs staff to see what that was and what could be done — if indeed it did,” Robinson said. “It’s a bit different, the academic advice for athletes. If they didn’t get that from the right person, they might have. I’m not saying it was. All I’m trying to do now is look at the situation as it is now (get across) that the team is working for our students.”
In addition to immediately moving two existing members of the university compliance program to athletics, Robinson said he will order all 18 FAMU academic advisors to receive training in “some of the nuances associated with athletics — progression, GPA issues.” It differs from a typical student moving from one level to the next.
“The misconception that people may have that we are not supporting FAMU athletics the way we should, that we are not caring about these young men is very disturbing to me because I know how much we care care and how much we invest in this program it all. We need to do more, (but the hint that we haven’t properly invested in the program is what bothers me the most.”
In the waiver filed by FAMU, which he reviewed for linebacker Land, Attorney Mars said FAMU’s chief compliance officer missed an opportunity to more effectively advocate for the player.
“Having seen so many of these waiver requests, I can tell you that the quality of work done by people submitting waiver requests ranges from highly competent to misconduct,” Mars said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the first,” FAMU’s interim compliance director, who also wears the grant coordinator’s hat, makes waiver motions.
“Compliance requires advocacy. Isaiah’s waiver had a very clinical paragraph (from the compliance officer) and Isaiah’s personal statement was only seven lines long. I’ve seen others between seven and 13 pages long. It is absolutely undeniable that FAMU made several mistakes.”
He hopes the NCAA reviews his waivers quickly and decides quickly, making a “one time exception” to vacate the remaining Rattlers after FAMU “completely dropped the ball.”
FAMU coach Willie Simmons said his team is traveling to Miami on Wednesday and “hopefully we’ll get a few more (players) before kick-off.”