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Adviser: UNC football, basketball players 'woefully unprepared'

Posted January 15, 2014
Updated January 16, 2014

Mary Willingham has worked with student athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 2003.

— 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."


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  • williammjohnston Jan 20, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Very well stated!

  • williammjohnston Jan 20, 2014

    Most of you miss the point. The individual obviously did not apply himself. Without his effort to learn to read! it is impossible to make them apply themselves! It is also a failure on the parents part to encourage them to work on academics as well as athletic ability. If these athletes did not read at 5th to 8th grade levels they should not have been promoted = social promotion! But if they are poor and minorities, the government would not allow them to be held back and they know that! The real problem lies with the student first and with the subsequent "authorities" thereafter, plus the alumni insisting on a winning team however it has to be done!

  • Alex25 Jan 16, 2014

    Wait till someone connects the dots with:


    oooooops. And they will.

  • Objective Scientist Jan 16, 2014

    "It is the nature of the animal. You want a good team, sometimes you have to get people that are not full time academics. This lady is sour grapes, she is jealous of the money that some of them make when they leave school." - post by lazyrebel Jan 16, 12:53 p.m.

    How do you figure that? She has been in the process of HELPING players to be "PAID" for the use of their image, name, likeness, etc. That hardly seems characteristic of someone jealous of the money some athletes will make after leaving school?

  • Objective Scientist Jan 16, 2014

    So much in this article and the comments to address... so little time and space. Some thoughts: Some say that reading at the 8th grade, or whatever, level is not the fault of the universities but that of the K-12 schools. I agree, but also attribute some "blame" to parents or lack thereof. However it is the fault of the universities to admit students reading at an 8th grade level or below. "In theory" - that should not happen because is the "college work" is at the appropriate level of rigor those students have no chance of succeeding - athlete or not. As a 3-time alumnus of UNC I am very disappointed, even disgusted, in the way "my university" has handled all of this "MESS". There could be 'issues' in Willingham's research regard her data source, measurement error, procedures/protocol, methods of analysis, etc., etc., but the University seems hell-bent on discrediting her research and the information it brings to the table - right out of the gate! At least TAKE A LOOK AT IT!!!

  • mamatried762 Jan 16, 2014

    Folt says the data doesn't match up. That may be due to her using 2012-2013 data, while Willingham's data was from previous years. I think UNC needs to just own up to what has happened, and continue to work on fixing it.

  • lazyrebel Jan 16, 2014

    It is the nature of the animal. You want a good team, sometimes you have to get people that are not full time academics. This lady is sour grapes, she is jealous of the money that some of them make when they leave school.

  • pdbullard Jan 16, 2014

    I think the new UNC chancellor just called Willingham a liar

    "but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims. Moreover, the data presented in the media does not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For example, only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing. Nevertheless, we are investigating all the claims being made and, if they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions. We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact."

  • StunGunn Jan 16, 2014

    There are many flaws in the current system: elementary, middle and high schools that promote and graduate students that are deficient in basic core subjects, Universities that admit some of these "student" athletes because they are proficient in the revenue sports; overlooking the fact they don't have the ability to take and pass the classes necessary to graduate, and lastly, the NFL and NBA rules that don't have a farm system like baseball.

    The current system is broken, but with the money generated by football and basketball, neither the Universities nor the NBA and NFL, and even the NCAA have the impetus to enforce rules that will put a stop to the cash cow that college sports have become.

  • Beeblebrox Jan 16, 2014

    View quoted thread

    And what finally happened at NC State? The faculty revolted, fired the coach, the athletic director, and the chancellor, and instituted more rigorous academic requirements than any school in the ACC. All for selling complementary tickets and shoes (there was no academic scandal at NCSU in the 80's, despite the propaganda from the UNC "faithful"). Contrast that reaction to the one at UNC, where the school has stonewalled for 3 years.