Media Erred By Going Easy On Florida A&M

By David Whitley
Updated: July 1, 2005

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If it all happened at Florida State, the headlines would have been endless.

If it all happened at Florida, a dozen TV trucks would have been parked outside Jeremy Foley’s house every night.

If it all happened at Miami, Congress would be calling for an investigation.

But it happened at Florida A&M, so we shrugged and moved on.

What happened the past few years? Only the most incompetent and damaging era in the state’s college sports history.

It wasn’t just athletics. The entire school seemed to have been taken over by Marx Brothers Management Corp. It all came crashing down Thursday.

Interim president Castell Bryant laid out her cleanup plans to the board of trustees. Forty-one people were fired, and four sports were eliminated. The athletic budget was slashed by 23 percent. The school also will apparently no longer pay law-school benefactors $100,000 a year to live in Kentucky.

All this comes shortly after the firing of football coach Billy Joe. And the discovery that more than 200 NCAA violations previously reported didn’t begin to cover the abuses.

There’s so much blame to go around, it’s hard to know where to start. But at least a sliver should go to the media for letting things slide into such an abyss, the very future of FAMU was in doubt.

“It was going to implode,” Roosevelt Wilson said.

He’s a former athletic director at the school and now publishes the Capitol Outlook newspaper in Tallahassee. The weekly at least tried to hold FAMU accountable, which is more than most of us can say.

Oh, you’d see the occasional drib and drab of news. But we in the media love to bask in the role of watchdog, especially when millions of tax dollars are vanishing. With FAMU, the dog was pretty much a sleepy mutt who never got off the porch.

One reason was that FAMU isn’t Florida or FSU. What happens with the Rattlers doesn’t interest nearly the same amount of people. Chances are, 89 percent of readers haven’t made it this far into the column.

But just because a story’s not important to most people doesn’t mean it’s not an important story. Given the duration and scope of FAMU’s problems, the benign neglect warrants more of an explanation. Here’s where things invariably get sticky.

“The Board of Regents in its last year acknowledged it looked over a lot of things at FAMU, because it didn’t want to appear to be racist,” Wilson said. “So it gave FAMU a lot of passes. Then when it came down to a test of accountability, we had none.”

If you ever want to frighten media off a story, just breathe the R word. If we held FAMU to the scrutiny level of Miami, the problems might have been addressed more than 200 violations earlier.

The thing is, we weren’t doing the school any favors by ignoring all the smoke. If anything, it’s insulting to those who truly want the best for the school.

“This new president says, ‘Don’t treat us any differently,’ ” Wilson said.

If there is anything good about Thursday, it’s that corrective steps finally are being taken. It’s just going to take a long time for them to stop hurting.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Wilson said.

No, the media didn’t come up with the preposterous plan to go Division 1-A. We didn’t sign bogus TV contracts or let scores of ineligible players suit up.

The fact is, we didn’t do anything directly to put FAMU in this mess.

It’s just we also didn’t do much to stop it.