Honored UNC employee talks of how university failed athletes

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

— Mary Willingham worked with one University of North Carolina football player who wanted to become an art teacher, one who wanted to coach middle school football and another who wanted to open a YMCA back home in an impoverished area of the state.

But because those athletes weren’t prepared to succeed academically in college, they couldn’t pursue an educational path that would have led to opportunities in education and business, Willingham said Thursday during a luncheon that honored her for detailing how ill-prepared athletes stayed eligible at UNC.

“Many athletes told me what they would like to study,” she said. “And listen to what we did. Instead, we directed them to an array of mismatched classes that have a very, very long history of probable (athletic) eligibility. And sadly, it’s still happening.”

Willingham made the remarks at the Friday Center after she received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award from The Drake Group. It is given annually to a university faculty or staff member who defends the institution’s academic integrity in the face of college athletics.

Allen Sack, a member of the faculty at the University of New Haven and the president of The Drake Group, praised Willingham for exposing the large number of UNC athletes who were enrolled in more than 50 no-show, bogus independent studies courses over a range of years.

Sack, a member of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team, said, “Our faculty should stand up and say, ‘No, we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.’”

The mission of The Drake Group, founded in 1999, is “to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.”

‘I saw cheating’

Willingham, who worked as a learning and reading specialist inside UNC’s academic support program for athletes, talked Thursday about her struggle to combat the system. She spoke of NCAA paperwork that arrived annually that required a signature and promise that she hadn’t seen cheating, or been a part of it.

“I’ve got to tell you that most of the time, I scribbled my initials on it,” Willingham said. “So yeah, I lied. I saw it – I saw cheating. I saw it, I knew about it, I was an accomplice to it, I witnessed it. And I was afraid, and silent, for so long.”

Willingham still works at UNC, though not with athletes. She’s an assistant director in the center for student services and academic counseling. Of the 750 to 800 athletes at UNC, she described 150 to 200 of them on Thursday as “seriously underprepared” for the academic rigors of college life at UNC.

During her 20-minute speech, she lambasted the NCAA – calling the organization a “cartel” and describing its academic entrance standards for athletes “a farce.”

“Let’s be honest,” Willingham said. “The athletic scholarship is just a lottery ticket with room and board, and a few concussions. Or, if you like Willy Wonka, it’s the golden ticket to win a tour here at our factory – where, by the way, you might get injured, or damaged. And there’s no insurance, no worker’s comp and no salary for your labor.”

‘A real education’

Willingham said she thinks she helped “a few” ill-prepared athletes find success in the classroom.

“But I really know that they (left) here without the one thing they need most in life – a real education,” she said. “That scholarship agreement that tells athletes and their families, ‘If you share your athletic talents, in exchange we’ll offer you an academic opportunity.’

“That agreement should not be signed, unless we can offer a real academic opportunity.”

Willingham, who along with other members of the UNC faculty has called for the university to better align the athletic department with the academic mission of the university, said UNC could offer a real educational experience to even the most academically at-risk athletes.

She proposed the formation of an on-campus preparatory academy to serve the needs of athletes who arrive on campus without the ability to read and write at the college level.

“For crying out loud,” Willingham said, “we could have paid for an academy twice with all the money we have spent at this university on consultants and reports (related to the academic scandals).”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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