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Adam Gold

UNC whistleblower advocates for student-athletes

Posted January 13
Updated January 14

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Mary Willingham is a learning specialist. Currently, she is an academic adviser in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling (SCCAC) at the University of North Carolina. For seven years, however, beginning in 2003, Willingham was a reading specialist in the Academic Center for Student Athletes, helping many of UNC's football and men's basketball players meet the rigors of their academic responsibilities at one of the most prestigious public universities in the country.

You most likely know her as "The Whistle Blower."  However, you might not fully comprehend in which direction that whistle was, and still is, being blown.

Willingham isn't here to bring down the athletic department. She has no interest in adding to the most emotionally draining season of Roy Williams' Hall of Fame coaching career. And, the very last thing Willingham wants is to paint football and men's basketball players at UNC as "dumb jocks." 

She is on the side of the athletes, fighting for, rather than against, their needs. The Drake Group, an organization dedicated to academic integrity in collegiate sport honored her with the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award, given yearly to a member of the faculty who takes a "courageous stand to defend academic integrity" at their institution. Her institution happens to be the University of North Carolina and, given the last few years of controversy, the outpouring of negative reaction -- even to the extent of death threats – while sad and twisted, is almost understandable.

This is a complicated and emotionally charged issue. For coaches like Williams who treasure their reputations for doing things the right way, point to their stellar graduation rates and a decade of recruiting players you'd be happy to have baby sit your grand kids, Willingham is the proverbial tack on the chair. When Willingham's research showed that 60% of football and men's basketball players who were admitted to the university with subpar academic records read at between a 4th and 8th grade level -- and roughly 8% were lower than that -- it came as a shock. But, when it revealed that one of Williams' players couldn't read it was taken as an affront to the coach's integrity. I guess that would be anyone's natural reaction, but this issue is so much bigger than one player or even one institution, that to consider it so is to do the discussion a massive disservice.

Profit sports, a much more accurate term than the commonly used "revenue" sports, demand a high level of performance today. College football and men's basketball are not extra-curricular activities designed to enhance the university experience for players and the regular student body as might have been the intent almost a century ago. They are minor leagues for professional sports and enormous profit centers -- albeit to varying degrees -- for major universities.

Have you taken a look at conference television packages these days? You either have a product on the field, or court, that people tune in to watch by the millions or you watch the industry pass you by. What do you think has been driving conference realignment, anyway? No one needs this many new friends. And, because schools do, in fact, have noble academic missions the exposure provided to them by high-level athletics enables them to be even more discriminatory in selecting the general student population. Appalachian State University saw a doubling of the number of applicants as a direct result of their run of national championships in football. That increase affords the school the luxury of raising the academic bar for incoming students.

The schools are not all evil here, either.

The major issue isn't even necessarily their fault. The academic pool, for varying reasons ranging from socio-economic to learning disabilities, is more shallow among athletes than it is for every other large subset of incoming students. Most of us have long since accepted that allowance because the means to an end has merit. Going to the Smith Center to watch the Tar Heels is fun -- yes, even this year, as unpredictable as it may be -- and, while you could get a spectacular education at the University of Chicago, the student-body experience in Chapel Hill is probably a bit more enjoyable. What "whistle blowers' like Mary Willingham are simply pointing out is that the University owes players more than they are providing.

This dilemma is not isolated to UNC, I promise you. Yes, the academic truthers out there who are only interested in taking down a rival's banners or evening a score of sorts, would remind you that North Carolina was the only one offering fake classes, possibly even an entire department constructed as a house of cards. But, I would be stunned if similar "programs" weren't prevalent across the board. Money, and the competition for it, will do a lot of damage to one's values and integrity. We see that in business, in life and professional sports is no different.

What do graduation rates mean if so many of the diplomas are simply made of paper rather than built on a foundation of actual academic achievement? I've argued for more than a decade that the value of the "free" education so many laud as more than payment enough for their athletic services fluctuates based on the athlete. For many, they truly are taking advantage of the system. Enjoying a meaningful, educational experience, while playing a sport they love -- maybe even parlaying it all into a professional career -- and walking away student-loan-debt-free.

But, for that other subset, the group that arrived unprepared for higher education, in many cases due to no fault of their own, the schools have to do better. They must work harder, devote more resources to educating as opposed to simply keeping kids eligible with the goal of fattening up graduation rates. How hypocritical is it to have multi-million dollar "academic" centers if schools are not using them to, you know, actually educate their student-athletes.

In today's culture of big time college sports it could easily be argued that academic fraud is almost a necessity. The ultra-talented athlete is vital to the success of programs in the profit sports, and keeping those athletes eligible serves their needs as well as the school's. However, here's where integrity rears its ugly head, because these schools are institutions of higher learning. And, if we're not going to pay these players an actual salary -- and I'm not talking about a stipend, I'm talking about a salary commensurate with their athletic value to the university -- then the only other option is to guarantee the value of the education.

It boils down to a path of least resistance. Like a teenager will do the least amount of work to get by, it's too easy for schools to hide behind the academic statistics of graduation rates and other NCAA measures and point to that as proof that they're different, or better, than the others. It's easier to push athletes through, change grades, funnel them into easier majors or even create bogus courses, all in the interest of boosting academic standing, than it is to do the heavy lifting of educating. The fraud also comes with apparently minimal risk because I've got a bridge to sell you if you honestly believe that the only setting in which courses have been faked, or grades have been changed, is by the well, or the bell, or the stone wall. In fact, I'd wager that what has happened at UNC is closer to the mid-point on the fraud scale than it is to the top end.

Remember, what Mary Willingham is driving at isn't meant to embarrass the young men, and in some cases women, offered the privilege of playing big-time college sports. The goal is to force the universities to do their job, to carry out their mission...to teach. We hear a lot these days about "full cost of attendance" as it pertains to athletic scholarships. Simply put, the room, board and tuition falls a few thousand dollars short of the actual cost of, well, attending school. Before we think about that, how about we focus on the full value of the education?

Or, we can continue to perpetuate the fraud and further the myth currently hidden among the graduation rates of our great kids.

82 Comments

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  • Objective Scientist Jan 18, 11:34 p.m.

    I believe something that needs to be added to this conversation is the responsibility for... View More

    — Posted by janetlivengood77

    I agree 100%... and furthermore... if the job has not been done at the middle and high school levels by either the student-athlete or the school - the individual should NOT be admitted to the university. The problem now is that seriously academic deficient athletes coming out of high school are admitted anyway! That must stop!

  • janetlivengood77 Jan 17, 5:02 p.m.

    I believe something that needs to be added to this conversation is the responsibility for preparing these athletes BEFORE they get to college. Gifted athletes are often not given the best advice and support to be academically successful middle school and high school.
    I think that college coaches should speak to the middle school and Pop Warner football coaches, the AAU basketball coaches making it clear to them that academics need to a part of the training their athletes receive.

  • Lumpy Jan 15, 7:41 p.m.

    Nice article, Adam. I agree with pretty much everything you say. But something bugs me about the entire way this discussion is framed. When FSU got caught with widespread cheating in a computer class, ( which, by the way, also benefitted regular students. No "academics only" issue there) and was dealt with swiftly by the NCAA, I don't remember having the discussion about what we need to do with college athletics as a whole. When UGA got caught giving it's players "what color is this?" tests in bogus classes, did the discussion touch on what we need to do about athletes and their education? Why is everyone so concerned with getting to the core of the problem in everyone's athletic department now that it's UNC's mess? It feels a little disingenuous. And whether it's meant to or not, it deflects from questions that still haven't been answered: Did UNC have players on championship teams that would have been ineligible without AFAM courses? Why the kid glove treatment from the NCAA?

  • black2euce06 Jan 15, 4:24 p.m.

    Collegiate institutions are as much to blame for the academic inconsistencies between student-athletes and regular students at major sports colleges. The institutions accept these athletes knowing that they do not meet the necessary minimum standards to be successful at institution. Nonetheless, the colleges profit immensely from the money that is generated from these athletes. The college is responsible for monitoring and ensuring that the athlete meets the minimum standards required by the institition. If that athlete fails to meet those standards, then it is the institution's responsibility to deal with that student. Everett Golson, former Notre Dame quarterback, is a perfect example of how a collegiate institition should handle student-athletes struggling accademically. Pay for play is not the answer when there are other safeguards to eliminate this type of issue.

  • 4tarheels Jan 15, 3:29 p.m.

    Willingham believes players should get paid. How ironic, the UNC football players were pioneers!

  • packisback69 Jan 15, 12:47 p.m.

    Get a life !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • Alex25 Jan 15, 11:47 a.m.

    UNCCH faculty is complicit in the worst athletic cheating on any campus - see grade changes, fake classes, tutors, etc. And now, the cover-up.

    UNCCH fans and faculty have sold their SOULS. No integrity apparently.

  • 4tarheels Jan 15, 11:43 a.m.

    I guess we should be proud that UNC faculty is so concerned about their student-athletes. Speaks volumes about the faculty at State and ECU who obviously are not advocates for theirs. Sad really.

  • Alex25 Jan 15, 8:54 a.m.

    On this season's North Carolina football team, Willingham said a cohort of 17 starters and other regular players had a combined 1.9 GPA (the UNC average is 3.2) and 29 F's, 53 D's and 14 semesters of academic probation. She said they also took an "inordinate" number of drama classes, yet none majored or minored in drama.

  • CarolinaBlue Jan 15, 7:17 a.m.

    So, correct me if I'm wrong, her research was based on vocabulary tests?!?

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