Willingham courageous in speaking out about UNC athletes

January 13, 2014 

Correction: This editorial published online on Jan. 13, 2014 incorrectly described when UNC learning specialist Mary Willingam conducted her research into the reading skills of UNC athletes. It was done after she completed her master's thesis on academics and athletics and was not part of her obtaining her master's degree.

The moment that Mary Willingham, a then-unknown academic adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, decided to speak out about the hypocrisy in the treatment of academically ill-prepared athletes on campus was when she attended the funeral of William Friday in October 2012.

Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system, had been an often lonely voice warning about the wretched excesses in college athletics. Many on the Chapel Hill campus ignored his warnings. And then scandal broke close to home.

Willingham is soft-spoken; she didn’t crave attention. But she’d been part of the academic advising unit that helped athletes and was fed up. So she came forward and now is at the center of a CNN investigation of how athletes are helped along in their studies beyond all reason to keep them eligible for the big money sports of football and basketball.

The investigation – adding to the bad news from a News & Observer series on phony courses and scandal in the football program – has UNC at the center of a report in which it’s noted that at universities across the country many athletes can’t read very well. There’s quite an “achievement gap” between athletes and regular students.

Coach looks bad

Willingham researched the reading skills of more than 180 football and basketball players between 2004 and 2012 at UNC-Chapel Hill. She found that 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and that some read below a third-grade level. CNN found similar data at other schools.

Willingham told CNN that she’d seen violations of the rules of the NCAA, the weak governing body of college athletics, when she worked as an academic counselor for athletes, but that she hadn’t spoken up then. The NCAA found no problems with rule-breaking at the university. Surprise.

UNC-CH basketball Coach Roy Williams dismissed Willingham’s claims of low reading levels simply by saying he didn’t believe them. Then, when Willingham offered to meet with him to discuss a former player who could not read, Williams decided that it was “not my place.” So first he dismissed Willingham’s work and then declined to talk with her. The coach made himself look pretty bad here.

Clearly, the university has a serious problem if it has become the centerpiece of a report in corruption in college athletics. That is monumentally damaging to its reputation.

Where’s Tom Ross?

Carol Folt, relatively new in the chancellor’s job, wasn’t around when the athletics enterprise was running amok. She notes reforms are in place. But now she must say more and do more. And the first thing she should do is seek a meeting with Mary Willingham.

This is Folt’s problem now. It needs to be her solution. And she must not be waved off addressing the issue by powerful and popular coaches.

It’s disappointing that UNC system President Tom Ross has not been more forceful in expressing his views with regard to what has become an ongoing scandal. For one thing, the issues with graduation rates and academic performance pertain to all system campuses, not just Chapel Hill. Friday as president and afterward was a national leader in drawing attention to these problems. Where is Tom Ross?

Willingham’s bottom line is that when students who can’t do college work are admitted, it basically necessitates cheating. That is a harsh truth, but the logic is sound.

Once, there was something called “the Carolina way,” the model for upright, by-the-rules college athletics. But that way has been lost. Only by confronting the issues, not by treating them as a public relations problem, can the university find its way again.

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