In the end, the bands played on, a potential disaster averted. Florida A&M, undermanned and eventually overwhelmed, limped off the field at Kenan Stadium having put up a noble fight against North Carolina, even with a third of its roster back in Tallahassee, ineligible.
The Rattlers started with only seven offensive linemen. By the end, Cesar Reyes was on crutches, his right knee in a brace. Another, Bryan Crawford, had his right shoulder in a sling. A coincidence, perhaps. Injuries happen in football. But they happen more often when players are asked to do too much.
“You lose your starting right tackle the day before the game and move your left guard over there,” said Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons, the former Clemson quarterback. “Then you lose your left guard during the game. Then you lose the right tackle who’s supposed to be at left guard and now you find yourself playing freshmen. It was extremely difficult. But, again, that’s part of the concern we had when we decided to play the game.”
To their eternal credit, the Rattlers made a game of it, against all odds, before wilting late in a 56-24 loss, and not unexpectedly given the state of their roster. Were it not for an ill-timed interception deep in their own territory in the final minute of the first half, they might have made more of it than that. With a full roster, who knows. It was a lonely sideline.
In the end, neither school could afford not to play Saturday night, helpless before the overwhelming economics of college football. The show must go on. So it did.
The Rattlers were six hours late leaving on Friday after a wave of eligibility issues and clearance delays left them without 25 players, including three starters, and down to the bare minimum of offensive linemen. By any modern standard of football health and safety, that wasn’t sufficient depth to play a game. When news broke about the FAMU roster, the line jumped by 10 points, with UNC finally favored by 44.
This was supposed to be a tribute to HBCUs, moved up a week to call more attention not only FAMU’s football team but its fabled marching band, the Marching 100, an attempt to showcase everything that’s right about college sports. Instead, it showed everything that’s wrong with an amateur enterprise that’s thoroughly professional for everyone but the unpaid athletes.
That’s been true for a long while, of course, but Saturday was one of those moments that drove home how out of whack things have become.
These were similar circumstances to the wave of positive COVID tests that led UCLA to back out of the Holiday Bowl against N.C. State hours before the game last December. The Bruins decided they didn’t have enough defensive linemen to safely play. They also didn’t face the same insistent financial imperatives in San Diego that UNC and FAMU faced in Chapel Hill on Saturday. The Bruins could walk away. So they did.
The dollar amounts attached to this one football game — North Carolina’s gate receipts at Kenan Stadium, the percentage of FAMU’s athletic budget UNC’s guarantee represents and the $450,000 FAMU would have had to pay to cancel — made not playing it financially impossible.
FAMU’s players reportedly had to be talked into playing by the school president, explaining Friday’s delay, because the monetary consequences of not playing shorthanded were too grim to contemplate. The fiscal health of the entire athletic department took precedence over the actual health of its football players.
“They made the decision initially not to play the game and then after some internal discussion among themselves decided to go and play the game,” Simmons said. “I’m proud of them for advocating for themselves and bringing awareness to an issue that we have. That’s what we coach them to do.”
Quarterback Jared Moussa, a Vanderbilt transfer, said the players felt like their protest called attention to what he said were persistent issues like players not being able to be on campus during the summer, “little things that wouldn’t cross my mind at Vanderbilt.”
“We’re not awarded any of the things even close what to schools like this can,” Moussa said, referring to UNC. “Once we got to the point where we felt like we couldn’t do anything else to help our teammates, ultimately this game was going to help us. We need these reps next week when it counts.”
And UNC, likewise, couldn’t afford to let FAMU off the hook. It only has six home games this season. This single August evening represented a significant portion of its annual football revenue, even after paying FAMU $450,000 to show up.
Neither side can be faulted for their decision. They were both prisoners of the larger economics, backed into a gilded corner.
College football has become too big to fail. The money involved has gotten so enormous, it warps time and space and reason to its own purpose.
Heck, it’s “Week 0.” Technically speaking, the season hasn’t started yet, a wonderful new iteration of college sports doublespeak, but once set in motion, it must remain in motion.
These games are a necessary evil under the best of circumstances, power programs looking for an easy win and smaller schools funding their entire departments with the payout. There’s a reason these are called “buy games” — you’re essentially buying a win, and everyone gets something out of it. For the visitor, it’s still a charter flight for players used to long bus trips, a chance to play on television under the lights in stadiums that dwarf their own and the often futile but not impossible pursuit of the very rare Appalachian State moment.
But these were not the best of circumstances. FAMU’s depleted roster — with half as many scholarship players available as UNC — was fed into the maw of the college-athletic-industrial complex, human fodder for ticket sales and television ratings, everyone making money off the risks they were asked to take except the players themselves.
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This story was originally published August 28, 2022 12:13 AM.
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