UNC Chapel Hill men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and other university officials strongly disputed a report by whistleblower Mary Willingham this week that says more than half of the academically at-risk athletes admitted to the university cannot read or write at a college level.
Williams told reporters the report was unfair and untrue with regard to Willingham’s claims that one basketball player was illiterate.
“I don’t believe that’s true,” Williams said. “It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. I’m really proud of what our student-athletes have done. That’s not fair. I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess. We haven’t brought anybody in like that. We’ve had one senior since I’ve been here that did not graduate. Anybody can make any statement they want to make, but that is not fair.”
The university also released a statement saying Willingham’s claim, first reported Wednesday by CNN, was not true.
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“We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction,” the statement said.
In an email Thursday, Willingham said she was busy with students and could not respond to Williams’ and the university’s counterclaims.
CNN, which obtained data on the reading capabilities of athletes at 21 other schools, said that many had football and basketball players who could not read above the eighth-grade level. CNN relied on Willingham’s research in reporting that at UNC, 60 percent of the athletes designated as academically challenged read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She also found that about 10 percent read below a third-grade level.
Willingham’s findings are an extension of her work as a graduate student at UNC Greensboro. Her thesis was “Academics & Athletics – A Clash of Cultures,” and examined Division I football programs.
Willingham had been a learning specialist in the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes from 2003 to 2010. She said she left after she reported her suspicions that a tutor had written a paper for a football player and no one in the program showed any desire to investigate. She continues to work as a learning specialist for the university, but in another program that does not work with athletes.
A major role
Willingham played a major role in The News & Observer’s work exposing a major academic fraud scandal involving the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. In August 2011, the N&O reported that a football player’s transcript showed he had taken an upper-level class in the department in the summer of 2007 and received a high grade despite needing remedial writing the following fall semester as an incoming freshman.
Willingham told the N&O shortly after that the academic support program was using “paper” classes in which no class was held but a paper assigned to keep athletes eligible. The university confirmed the existence of the “paper” classes in a report released in May 2012.
UNC officials say two people were responsible for the bogus classes – former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and his longtime assistant Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009.
Willingham went public with her concerns about athletes’ ability to do college-level work, and how the support staff were using the paper classes to keep athletes eligible, in an N&O article on Nov. 17, 2012. Other evidence obtained by The N&O backed her claims, but they have drawn little activity from the NCAA.
Willingham has never been interviewed by the association, which regulates college athletics and distributes millions of dollars to member schools earned through its men’s basketball tournament.
Nyang’oro was indicted last month by an Orange County grand jury on a felony charge of obtaining property through false pretenses. He is accused of accepting $12,000 in summer pay for a 2011 class that he did not teach. He created the class shortly before the semester started, and it filled with football players.
Nyang’oro’s attorney said he is innocent, but the indictment drew national attention, including a front-page story in The New York Times on New Year’s Day. Since then, a steady stream of national reports have flowed about the scandal, giving it a wider audience than it had before.