UNC football: Shorthanded FAMU can’t stand not to play

In the end, the bands played, a potential disaster averted. Understaffed and eventually overwhelmed, Florida A&M was knocked out at Kenan Stadium after a lofty battle against North Carolina, even with a third of its roster back in Tallahassee, ineligible.

The Rattlers started with just seven offensive linemen. In the end, Cesar Rice was on crutches, his right knee in a brace. Another, Brian Crawford, had his right shoulder in a sling. Maybe a coincidence. Injuries happen in football. But it happens more often when players are asked to do too much.

“You check the correct starting method the day before the game and move your left keeper there,” said Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons, the former Clemson quarterback. “Then you lose your left goalkeeper during the match. Then you lose the right tackle that is supposed to be in the left guard and now you find yourself playing the starter. It was very difficult. But, again, that’s part of the anxiety we had when we decided to play the match.”

To their eternal credit, the Rattlers played it, against all odds, before shriveling up late in a 56-24 loss, not unexpectedly given the state of their roster. Had it not been for an incorrect interception deep into their territory in the last minute of the first half, they would have done more. With a full list, who knows. It was one side.

In the end, neither school could afford not to play Saturday night, helpless in the face of the overwhelming economy of college football. show must go on. So I did.

The Rattlers’ family was six hours late on Friday After a spate of eligibility issues and clearance delays, he left them without 25 players, including three appetizers, and down to the minimum attack giants. According to any modern standard of football health and safety, this depth was not enough to play a match. When news broke about the FAMU roster, the streak jumped by 10 points, with UNC finally favoring 44.

Florida A&M fans celebrate after a third-quarter touchdown against North Carolina on Saturday, August 27, 2022 at Keenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

This was meant to be a tribute to the HBCUs, and it was raised for a week to bring more interest to not only the FAMU football team but their legendary marching squad, Marching 100, in an effort to showcase all that is right about college sports. Instead, he showed everything that was wrong with a completely professional amateur establishment to all but the unpaid athletes.

That’s been true for a long time, of course, but Saturday was one of those moments that drove home just how out of control things got.

These were similar circumstances to the wave of positive COVID tests that led UCLA to retract the Holiday Bowl against NC State hours before the game last December. The Bruins decided they didn’t have enough linebackers to play it safe. Nor have they faced the same pressing financial imperatives in San Diego that UNC and FAMU faced in Chapel Hill on Saturday. Bruins can turn away. So they did.

The dollar amounts associated with this football game—North Carolina Gateway receipts at Kenan Stadium, the percentage of FAMU’s sports budget represented by a UNC guarantee, and FAMU having to pay $450,000 to cancel—made it financially impossible not to play it.

The FAMU players reportedly had to be spoken to by the head of the school, explaining Friday’s postponement, because the financial consequences of not playing shorthand were too bleak to contemplate. The financial health of the entire sports department took precedence over the actual health of football players.

“They made the decision at first not to play the game, and then after some internal discussion among themselves they decided to go and play the game,” Simmons said. “I am proud of them for standing up for themselves and spreading awareness about our cause. This is what we train them to do.”

Vanderbilt’s Jared Moses said the players felt their protest drew attention to what he said were ongoing problems such as players not being able to be on campus during the summer, “small things I wouldn’t think of at Vanderbilt.”

Florida A&M midfielder Jeremy Moses (8) stretches before their game against North Carolina on Saturday, August 27, 2022 at Keenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“We didn’t give any of the things as close as we could to schools like this,” Moses said, referring to UNC. “Once we got to the point where we felt we couldn’t do anything else to help our teammates, this game was finally going to help us. We need those delegates next week when it matters.”

Likewise, UNC could not have let FAMU off the hook. She has only six home games this season. That solo evening in August represented a significant portion of her annual football revenue, even after paying FAMU $450,000 for an appearance.

No one can be blamed for his decision. Both were prisoners of the greater economy, propped up in a gilded corner.

College football has become too big to fail. The money involved has become so enormous, it defies time, space, and reason for its own purpose.

Heck, it’s “week 0”. Technically the season hasn’t started yet and it’s a great new iteration of dual college sports, but once the action gets going, it should still be on the move.

These games are a necessary evil under the best of circumstances, energy programs looking for easy wins and smaller schools fund their entire departments with pay. There’s a reason it’s called “buying games” – you’re basically buying a profit, and everyone gets something out of it. To the visitor, this is still a charter flight for gamers accustomed to taking long bus trips, the chance to play on TV under lights in the dwindling stadiums before them, and the often futile but not impossible quest for a moment so rare in Appalachia.

But these were not the best conditions. FAMU’s depleted roster – with half as many scholarship players available as UNC – was fed into the college sports-industrial complex, the human fodder for ticket sales and TV ratings, and everyone making money from the risks they were asked to take except for the players themselves.

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This story was originally published August 28, 2022 12:13 am.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six finals for the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the Stanley Cup in the Carolina Hurricanes. He is the current president of the US Basketball Writers Association, and was the 2020 National Headliner Award winner for the nation’s best sports columnist and twice named North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year.

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