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CNN report examines poor reading skills of former UNC athletes

Posted January 8, 2014
Updated January 9, 2014

— A CNN report on the reading levels of athletes at public universities is drawing more attention to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has been beset by athletic and academic troubles in recent years.

The report focused on 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012. About 60 percent were reading between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8 and 10 percent were reading below a third-grade level.

CNN based its findings on the work of Mary Willingham, the academic adviser in UNC’s Graduation Division.

According to CNN, with permission of the university, Willingham combed through eight years of test scores. Her research looked at whether the drive to win in sports is causing schools to enroll athletes who can't perform in the classroom.

UNC administrators issued a statement Wednesday about the report, questioning the accuracy of a quote from Willingham about a former UNC basketball player who was unable to read or write.

"We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our university with distinction," the statement reads. "Our students have earned their place at Carolina, and we respect what they bring to the university both academically and athletically."

Administrators said they could not comment on the statistical claims in the report because they have not seen the data, which was analyzed by CNN.

"University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met," officials said.

UNC head men's basketball coach Roy Williams commented on the story following his team's 63-57 loss to Miami on Thursday night, saying he didn't believe the story was true.

"It's totally unfair. I'm really proud of the kids we've brought in here. I'm really proud of what our student athletes have done," he said. "I've been here 10 recruiting classes, we haven't brought anybody in like that. We've had one senior since I've been here that did not graduate."

After pausing, Williams reiterated his belief in the UNC athletic program and the type of players the basketball program has brought in. 

"Anybody can make any statement they want, but that is not fair. The University of North Carolina doesn't do that, the University of North Carolina doesn't stand for that. I don't think it's true, and I'm really, really bothered by the whole thing," he said. "People have taken their chances to beat up on us for quite a while. We're going to survive this. I'm really proud of my kids. Anybody that says anything like that, it's not right. I know what the program has been for 100 years." 

CNN found startling results at other schools as well. But UNC officials said they have implemented changes to correct problems that came to light during an NCAA investigation into the football program that began in 2010.

The school’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies was at the center of an investigation into academic fraud involving Tar Heel football players. The allegations focused on no-show classes, altered grades and other improprieties.

What began as a look at whether players were getting gifts from agents expanded to include a probe of the academic support system, revealing plagiarism and other improprieties, and resulted in punishment for the football team that extends into 2015.

An internal investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin into academic irregularities at UNC revealed that any irregularities were concentrated in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and dated to about 1994. Martin found no anomalies outside of that department and no specific link between the scandal and student-athletes.

Willingham said she is skeptical about whether changes undertaken by the school have made a difference.

“They say that we made 120 changes,” she told CNN. “You can make all the changes you want, but if you’re still not meeting students where they’re at, as an educator, and bringing them along so that they can have success in the classroom, then those changes are all for nothing.”


This story is closed for comments.

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  • Alex25 Jan 14, 2014

    500 no show classes over 15 years - ? Really - ? 7 UNCCH depts now involved - ??? ESPN News ......

  • dirtdevil123 Jan 10, 2014


  • billggibsonii Jan 10, 2014

    In 1972/3 when I was at Carolina;-) students would comment that they might need to take "Portuguese 101" or "Basket Weaving" with a bunch of athletes (not specific to football or basketball) in order to increase their GPA. Was this just some mis-information that otherwise savvy students had heard through the grapevine? Maybe so. But, sometimes a cartoonist exaggerates the features of someone in a caricature, to point out their distinguishing features. If Willingham stays at Chapel Hill much longer, I would be surprised. She should have passed this research on to someone else.

  • barry0429 Jan 9, 2014

    I really don't think this comes to a surprise to anyone.

  • greenmachine Jan 9, 2014

    There will be many more teary eyed press conferences for Roy Williams. His poor mental state is due to his guilt in knowing the institutional fraud that has taken place over the years. The pressure is mounting. UNC has yet to come clean because of a passive NCAA and is willing to throw low profile individuals under the bus to preserve the institution. It will not become crystal clear until the birds start to sing to save themselves. UNC and the BOG are trying to save the flagship from taking on more water.

  • joeBob Jan 9, 2014

    "I know what the program has been for 100 years." -really Roy? Tell us. What was the program like in 1914?

  • rayzer Jan 9, 2014

    View quoted thread

    CNN has emails that show UNC did know about Willingham's research. In fact, she says it's their own data.

  • UpChuck Jan 9, 2014

    View quoted thread


  • maduda Jan 9, 2014

    I don't care what for which school you root. Schools where the athletic program is as high or higher a priority as academics have the same problem. The lure of lucrative contracts for young, often "disadvantaged" yet talented people. Couple that with the NCAA not allowing athletes to make any money off their own image while the NCAA and the schools make millions from the athletes' images, and you have the makings for just what we have here. It's not only UNC, it just happened that UNC got caught in a large, grotesque, and public way and is going to continue to see repercussions from the issue. Let athletes go pro out of high school. LeBron James proved (heavy sarcasm) that you don't need no education to ball. Let the parents who allowed their kids to shirk their education deal with the mess when their kids grow up too fast.

  • jhk0704 Jan 9, 2014

    View quoted thread

    You really believe that the UNC basketball team had a player that couldnt read or write???? seriously come on maaannnnnn.....thats not even close to true. Look at the rosters from that period and tell me who it could have been.

    My issue with this story is there is not fact or information to back it up at all. And the fact that she wont release the info to the university and CNN wont let anyone see it. yeah right