There are new allegations in the academic scandal in the UNC-Chapel Hill athletic department. UNC’s football team is already on NCAA probation, in part for improper help players got from a tutor. Now, a former academic support counselor named Mary Willingham has come forward with allegations that numerous people in her department knew there were problems, but looked the other way. In some cases, athletes were so far behind that academic success was almost impossible--- she says some had never read a book and didn’t know what a paragraph was. Among the problems she describes are so-called “paper classes,” where students turned in a paper, but weren’t required to go to class.
She told all of this to Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer, and he spoke to WFAE’s Duncan McFadyen.
MCFADYEN: Dan, did Mary Willingham tell you what she hopes to change by coming forward?
KANE: I think what she does want to change is this environment that she believes we’re in here at Carolina and at other schools where student-athletes are basically not there to get an education. They’re there to win football games; they’re there to win basketball games. And what she would like is for things to change so that these students also get an opportunity to learn---and learn something useful---to come out of the universities with a valuable degree. She would like for these students to be better prepared coming in. One of the things she talked about was, “you shouldn’t’ be on the field, the basketball court, unless you have met being able to do college level work.”
MCFADYEN: To what extent do UNC and other big name universities rely on their athletic success to help drive donations for their academic programs?
KANE: That’s a good question. It’s not something I’ve quantified, but there is some money that comes back to the universities, I think some of the sales related to athletics. But I think probably the larger point is a lot of universities look at these successful programs as recruiting tools in terms of students. Students will want to go to a university that has a successful football or basketball program. Question is, does that override their desire to go to a school that has a great academic reputation, therefore that degree has more value in the marketplace.
MCFADYEN: You wrote that athletes were expected to spend about 20 hours a week on their sport…we thought that number was a little low…
KANE: I think the regulation is, you’re not supposed to spend more than 20 hours a week. But a lot of these guys spend more than that.
MCFADYEN: They could go work out on their own or do something not officially..
KANE: …work out on their own, look at game films, studying playbooks. That’s one of the things that Mary was talking about. You’ve got these students who are already coming in with pretty substandard academic experiences, histories. And then they come in here and they’re automatically [spending] 20+ hours a week on their sport. I like to tie this all back to one of the very first stories I wrote in this whole thing, and that’s the transcript of Marvin Austin. Austin comes in there, gets placed into the English 100 class, which is the very basic English class---really kind of a remedial class. He takes that class in his first full semester as a freshman. But before that, he shows up at the university in the summer, and they put him in one of these “paper classes.” He’s required to write a 20 page paper, and he gets a B+
KANE: If that doesn’t tell you that what Mary Willingham is saying is true, then I don’t know what will.
Mary Willingham’s experiences in the UNC athletic department’s academic support program inspired her Master’s thesis: Academics and athletics: a clash of cultures. In it, she uses two decades of data to argue a disparity in academic preparedness has lead to a drop in graduation rates among division I football players. She still works as an academic counselor at UNC, but not with athletes.
We tried to reach Mary Willingham for an interview, but we were unsuccessful.