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Adviser: UNC football, basketball players 'woefully unprepared'

Posted January 15
Updated January 16

Mary Willingham has worked with student athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 2003.
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— Mary Willingham, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill adviser who aired dirty laundry last week in a CNN report on student-athletes and academic progress, said Wednesday that frustration with a system that put player eligibility above academic integrity drove her to go public with her research.

 "(I was) waiting for the university to do the right thing, and they still haven’t done the right thing,” Mary Willingham told WRAL News.

Willingham, who has aligned herself with student-athletes suing the NCAA, said those athletes are getting a raw deal. "They’re not getting the real cost of attendance. They’re not getting an education," she said.

Willingham has filed brief in support of the athletes suing the NCAA in Keller vs. Electronic Arts Inc. et al, the case originally filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon who was seeking a share of the profits the NCAA made by using his likeness in a video game.

"I was silent for so long," Willingham said.

Willingham works in the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. From 2003 to 2010, she helped athletes in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. During the course of her work, both as a UNC graduate student and employee, Willingham researched how university admission standards are applied to athletes in the high-profile, revenue-driving sports of men's football and basketball and found that that 60 percent of the 183 athletes she studied read at a level more common in elementary school and up to 10 percent had the reading skills of a third grader.

University leaders have never looked at her findings, Willingham said. "The university has had this data for a number of years," she said. "As a matter of fact, they started testing athletes in 1999. They paid for it. Why didn’t anyone look at it?"

A UNC spokeswoman said Willingham turned over some data Monday and that leadership was reviewing it.

It's not the first time Willingham has tried to draw attention to her research.

"I gave a flash drive in 2010 to general counsel," she said. "I gave a flash drive to Governor Martin in 2012." Jim Martin, governor of North Carolina from 1985 to 1993, led UNC's internal investigation of  academic irregularities in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. In his report and others, the university has pointed the finger at former AF-AM Department Chair Julius Nyang'Oro and staffer Deborah Crowder.

"At UNC, we have also sadly admitted to tolerating a system of no-show classes (which preserved eligibility) that existed in our African and Afro-American Studies Department for more than two decades – a system that athletes, advisers, coaches and administrators all knew about, but for which only two people have been blamed," Willingham said.

Willingham's research made the national spotlight last week as part of a CNN report on academic deficits among student-athletes nationwide.

Willingham wrote in her brief that she started looking for jobs outside UNC "because the pressure to keep students eligible had eclipsed learning and academic integrity. The cheating in ‘no show’ paper classes and in our mentor program (e.g., writing papers for players) had become overwhelming."

85 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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  • dh1964 Jan 15, 2:49 p.m.

    Why does anyone care which side of this issue Ms. Willingham is on? I don't mean any disrespect, but I don't see any connection between this issue and Ms. Willingham's former role with the university .

  • dh1964 Jan 15, 3:03 p.m.

    Ah, I see - the athletes' attorneys filed a declaration from her. It's actually kind of interesting.

    Incidentally, WRAL, you mention a "deposition," but you posted a declaration. They are not the same thing. Maybe the NCAA also took her deposition, but your story appears to quote the declaration, not a deposition transcript.

  • 903 Hail Providence Jan 15, 3:11 p.m.

    Why does anyone care which side of this issue Ms. Willingham is on?

    It's just another opportunity for UNC fans to discredit her as using this as a way to sell books...

  • 4tarheels Jan 15, 3:16 p.m.

    This will not be a popular opinion with the abc crowd. She was their champion when she was telling about illiterate athletes at UNC, then she pulls the rug out from underneath the abc crowd by supporting pay to college athletes.

  • dooksucks3 Jan 15, 3:24 p.m.

    She is causing publicity for the book she is writing, hence her motives.

  • cetingen2 Jan 15, 3:32 p.m.

    If she accepted a job to help student athletes maintain their eligibility, why was she so surprised the student athletes needed help? As for the disparity between privileged students and underprivileged football players, would she rather have these football players back on the block trying to figure out their next move in life or a chance to provide for their families for generations by playing a few years at a prestigious program? I could have figured out she had a liberal studies degree with out reading that.

  • lcapetanos Jan 15, 3:34 p.m.

    Can't wait for the book to come out. And then the movie. And then the sequel. And finally the addendum to the book with actual photos of the illiterate.

  • 4tarheels Jan 15, 3:47 p.m.

    WRAL...the athletes she supports are suing the NCAA for compensation, not UNC. Your headline speaks volumes about your motives...

  • wmcmahon1 Jan 15, 3:48 p.m.

    As Hillary always says: "WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?"

  • 4tarheels Jan 15, 3:59 p.m.

    Maybe UNC should benchmark the athletes that are admitted to State and ECU, two other large universities in the UNC system who play football and basketball. Would Willingham approve of the athletes that they admit? If UNC is doing the wrong thing by admitting academically challenged students, then maybe UNC should study what kind of athletes are going to State and ECU because we don't hear anything bad about their student athletes.

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