Mary Willingham, the former UNC-Chapel Hill reading specialist who blew the whistle on years of academic fraud involving athletes, says she is willing to be interviewed by the NCAA, so long as it’s on “their dime.”
“The Cartel can interview me on their own dime – and with permission from my new employer,” Willingham said in an email message to The News & Observer on Wednesday. She made the offer after newly released correspondence in the NCAA infractions case showed the NCAA’s infractions committee chairman suggested she would be worth seeking out for an interview, which prompted UNC’s attorney to write that she had been “discredited.”
Willingham has become nationally known for her role in exposing the scandal, and she’s also gained attention as a critic of the NCAA. She and others refer to it as a cartel because it regulates an activity that generates tens of millions of dollars for the most highly competitive universities in football and men’s basketball, while limiting athletes to scholarships that are supposed to cover the cost of attendance.
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The UNC case has cast doubt on the value of that arrangement for athletes. An extensive investigation in 2014 by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found that academic support staff for athletes were steering them into classes that didn’t meet and had no instruction. They were largely created by a former administrative secretary who provided a high grade if a paper was turned in.
UNC paid $3.1 million for the investigation, which led to firings and disciplinary actions for several individuals. The probe also prompted the agency that accredits UNC to put the university on a year-long probation for violating several standards, including control over college athletics.
Nearly six years ago, Willingham told The News & Observer about these “paper” classes. She contacted The N&O after it had reported an unusual high grade on a football player’s transcript for a 2007 class that later turned out had never met.
In November 2012, Willingham went public about the classes in an N&O report. Much of what she said back then had been confirmed by other information The N&O had reported.
Willingham ran into trouble when she sought to quantify how many revenue sport athletes at UNC were academically challenged. Her research was featured in a CNN report in early 2014 and created a firestorm. But the research hadn’t been vetted by her co-investigators, and UNC put a halt to it on the grounds that she had not gotten proper authorization.
UNC later hired three experts who disputed her findings, but UNC never gave them the athletes’ test scores and other academic data Willingham had used to assess athletes’ reading capabilities. UNC also declined to make that information public – with athletes’ identifying information redacted – so others could.
UNC now cites those experts’ reports to claim Willingham has been discredited.
Three months ago, Willingham left Chapel Hill to take a job as the regional literacy director for a public charter school in Arkansas. She had been working at Durham Tech in a part-time role, following a nasty split with UNC involving a lawsuit she filed over how they treated her after she went public about the bogus classes.
She had declined to be interviewed by the NCAA then, she said, because it could have been used against her in the lawsuit. It was later settled.
After reading the NCAA and UNC correspondence released Tuesday, Willingham gave The N&O an email she said she had sent to UNC’s attorney, Rick Evrard, and NCAA infractions committee chairman Greg Sankey. She began it with: “I’ve read that one of you is looking for me while the other has me on the ‘discredited’ list.”
She directed them to the book she co-wrote with UNC history professor Jay Smith, called Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.
She also said she had been deposed by NCAA attorneys a year ago in a civil case regarding college athletes’ rights to compensation, and that her files from the UNC scandal are available from the College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
The email did not indicate she’d be willing to be interviewed, but she told The N&O in an interview the NCAA could come pay her a visit.
“It’s not like I’m in the witness protection program,” she said.
Sankey said in a recently-released letter that he plans to hold a hearing on the academic scandal in August. UNC faces five serious allegations, including lack of institutional control, over the bogus classes.