Adviser: UNC football, basketball players 'woefully unprepared'
Posted January 15
Updated January 16
Chapel Hill, N.C. — 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."