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Jacobs: College sports whistle-blowers face tough road

The tension between academic integrity and athletic success is nothing new in college sports. Unfortunately, neither are the lengths – or depths – to which some fans will go to express their displeasure when whistle-blowers reveal where favorite schools fall short. It’s easy to celebrate self-appointed seekers of truth in fiction and film. In real life, where shades of gray color the picture, not so much.

The litany of abuse is discouragingly similar for Mary Willingham in Chapel Hill today as it was for Linda Bensel-Meyers at the University of Tennessee around 2000 and the late Jan Kemp at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s: Death threats. Harassing emails and phone calls. Menace directed at family members. Verbal assaults in public places.

Dave Ridpath escaped only the worst of the attacks at Marshall University in the mid-2000s. “For some reason, college athletics makes rational people act irrationally,” said Ridpath, a former athlete and coach who describes himself as a “scapegoat who fought back” rather than a whistle-blower. “I don’t think I can say that I was really surprised, but I guess nothing can prepare anyone for the vitriol, and really the utter hatred.”

Even among fellow academicians, whistle-blowers are far more likely to be shunned than supported. “One day you have all these friends, the next day everybody’s walking 20 feet around you down through campus,” said Kadie Otto, a professor of sports management at Western Carolina University. Otto is a former president of the Drake Group, a national organization of faculty dedicated to defending academic integrity in college sports. “That is really difficult to handle. That is sad. I think it says something about perhaps the majority of our society that they’re not willing to do the right thing. That’s a kind of scary message that we want to think about – most people seemingly don’t want to stand up for what’s right.”

Bensel-Meyers, who directed a writing center for undergrads at Tennessee, says she spent a decade trying to work within the university before going public with concerns about reading deficiencies among athletes, tutors sitting in on classes for players, grades and procedures rearranged to preserve eligibility, and athletes who fell by the wayside once their usefulness on the field had expired. Her allegations surfaced shortly after the Volunteers won the 1998 championship in football.

“I didn’t set out to rock the boat,” Bensel-Meyers said. “I started out just wanting to make sure we taught the people we had in our classes. It was really to make sure that all students had an equal right to an education – that’s all I was after. Sports was not an issue to me.”

Coming forward about deficiencies in academic support for athletes took a toll on Bensel-Meyers’ marriage and her sense of well-being. A car tire was slashed. She and her children were spat upon when they went to a mall. “It was really not a good place to live at that time,” she said of Maryville, a Knoxville suburb with a single high school. “I never realized how much trouble it would have for my kids, and they’re carrying a lot of the residue of it. It was hard for them, and they didn’t ask for any of it.”

‘Interesting journey’

Tennessee made internal changes, but ultimately the NCAA found no wrongdoing. There was a lawsuit. The school’s president denounced Bensel-Meyers. She moved on, and is now the chair of the English department at the University of Denver. The Shakespeare scholar cites the play “Coriolanus” as the work that most closely mirrors her experience in Knoxville. “It’s about someone who has been shunned by the public, unfairly,” the professor said of one of Shakespeare’s more obscure works. “Very similar.”

From afar, Bensel-Meyers also sees similarities between her experiences and those of Willingham, whom she does not know. Sure enough, the Chapel Hill resident has met with death threats, a screaming UNC fan on a running trail, the cold shoulder from most colleagues, and social media pressure directed at her husband’s business.

“It’s been an interesting journey from the standpoint of, I had no idea that people loved sports more than anything else, and how mean and bullying people can be because of sports,” said Willingham, once a swimmer at Chicago’s Loyola University. “Look at what’s happened to me – I’m not exactly welcome on campus or in this community any more. It’s hard. People ask me when I’m going to move, or people see me and say, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize you still live here.’

“I raised my kids here. This is the community I have lived in. I don’t see why I have to leave because of being truthful about kids who aren’t getting a real education, but we’re all being entertained by them on game day. I don’t know; it seems ridiculous.”

Willingham came to the university in 2003. The reading specialist and former academic adviser to Tar Heel athletes said she “complained all the time about admitting students who weren’t capable of doing the work.” But, like Bensel-Meyers at Tennessee, she said she enjoyed helping students and kept her concerns in-house for almost a decade.

Rigorous scrutiny

Internal reforms and investigations ensued once Willingham went public. She articulated a broad racial component to exploitation of athletes, and became a staunch advocate for systemic change nationally. Undercutting Willingham’s credibility, aspects of her research into reading deficiencies among UNC football and men’s basketball players, and the way she shared data, drew strong criticism in academic circles. Two months ago, her master’s thesis was revealed to contain plagiarized material.

“Even the most recent accusations toward me, I just don’t see how it’s relevant to what I’ve said,” said Willingham, “which is that the NCAA is a cartel and the D-I football and basketball system is corrupt.”

Members of what Willingham calls “the college sport whistle-blowing choir” are understandably sympathetic. Bensel-Meyers said “it’s a typical modus operandi of the university to attack the character of the speaker rather than address the issue.” Ridpath cautions that whistle-blowers are bound to undergo rigorous personal scrutiny, a major reason more critics don’t emerge.

“When you look at Mary, Linda, Jan Kemp and myself, we’re far from perfect,” said the Ohio University professor of sports administration with an admittedly explosive temper. “You put yourself out there, people are going to attack everything you’ve done in your life to discredit you and make you look bad to protect what they love – their money, their brand.”

Yet even if a whistle-blower’s missteps command attention, Ridpath cautions against being distracted from the substance of the compromises and abuses they reveal. “Mary was very careless in her thesis, and I was disappointed in her,” said the president-elect of the Drake Group. “That doesn’t mean she wasn’t right.”