‘Shame on us’: Colleges fail unprepared athletes, UNC whistleblower tells Capitol Hill panel

July 26, 2019: The headline and story have been updated for clarification.

Former University of North Carolina learning specialist Mary Willingham, who blew the whistle on a two-decade “paper classes” scheme intended to keep student-athletes at the school eligible, said some of the athletes she worked with were unable to read, yet they were admitted to the university because of their athletic prowess.

“When I went to the University of North Carolina as a learning specialist, I didn’t expect to have to teach kids to read,” she said. “... I had athletes who were so unprepared for the course work, they were working on reading — reading letters and sounds. They didn’t know. They were just passed along and we took them in the front door of the institution and promised them, in exchange for their talent, that we were going to provide them with a world-class education.

“Does it sound possible?”

Willingham delivered her statements on Capitol Hill Thursday as part of a panel organized by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. Murphy’s report on college sports and academic fraud is titled “How Colleges Keep Athletes on the Field and Out of the Classroom.” The report includes a section on the academic scandal at UNC. It is the second report in a series from Murphy called Madness, Inc., aimed at problems with college athletics.

The panel was not part of an official congressional hearing. It was held before a full house in a Senate committee hearing room.

Murphy said the treatment of college athletes, particularly in the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball where the majority of athletes are black, is a “festering civil rights crisis.” He said college athletics is a $14-billion a year business where the majority of those making money are white adults.

“When student-athletes are being used as commodities to make money for adults and not being compensated or rewarded for the work they do,” Murphy said, “that’s a fairness issue. That’s a civil rights issue.”

Student-athletes, per NCAA rules, are not allowed to be compensated financially for playing. The organization has loosened rules in recent years and allowed schools to enhance the value of a scholarship through cost of attendance stipends. But athletes are currently prohibited from profiting off their names, images and likeness — a practice that Murphy and other lawmakers at the state and federal level are trying to end.

The players, proponents argue, are being compensated with a free education, a tangible and valuable benefit at a time when the cost of college is leaving many recent graduates with large student debt loads.

But Willingham and others on the panel said that schools are failing to hold up their end of that bargain to provide a world-class education.

Gerry Gurney, an education professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on academic integrity in college sports, spoke on the panel Thursday about student-athletes not being in control of their academic careers.

“It isn’t so,” Gurney said. “A class of athletes who are bringing in this revenue receive an education that is largely characterized by clustering, where the athletes don’t really have a choice in following their interests, in phony courses taught by friendly professors.”

Willingham said that some of the athletes at UNC had a dozen — and, in the case of one men’s basketball player, 18 — “paper classes” on their transcript. “Paper classes” were classes that did not require the student to show up, attend lectures or, in some cases, produce any work.

“If we’re going to promise students a real education, then we absolutely must deliver a real education in the very least,” Willingham said Thursday.

She said many of the athletes had “real hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow” and often families that were counting on them. She said one female student-athlete wanted to be a business major and return to her hometown to open a YMCA, but she was unable to read and needed glasses, which the NCAA may or may not be willing to pay for. She recounted the story of a UNC football player who had lived in a car for at least seven years as a child.

“He couldn’t read. He probably didn’t go to school. Carolina let him in the front door and promised him something we couldn’t give him,” said Willingham, who now teaches middle-school children in Chicago to read, work that she considers the “joy of my life.”

Former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, who is now the president of the National College Players Association, and Drexel economist Ellen Staurowsky, co-author of College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth, also appeared on the panel.

Staurowsky said compensation and education are linked.

”As a basic American principle, the concept is that you as a worker should have access to the fruits of your labor,” she said. “It’s a fundamental concept. If you work, you get paid for your value and you get paid.

“If this is genuinely about education, all of the data tells us that the more access you have to family income, the greater the likelihood is that you will graduate with a bachelors degree.”

All four of Thursday’s panelists are in favor of additional compensation and education opportunities for student-athletes.

Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from Greensboro, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House that would allow student-athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. A state bill in California would do the same.

“Pay the players, but let’s talk about education,” Willingham said. “I didn’t meet a kid who said to me, ‘I don’t want the education.’ Maybe in my seven years, maybe two kids. ... They want to make their moms proud and their families proud and their brothers and sisters and cousins proud. They want to get a real education and they want to get it in what they want to do.

“It’s just criminal, really, what we’re doing. Shame on us.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or