by Kent Sterling
To compensate student-athletes for their participation in a revenue sport through a scholarship that provides an education he is not ready or able to use is immoral.
That’s Mary Willingham’s position as she tells the truth about the reading level of North Carolina football and basketball players. She says that as a academic advisor for those athletes, 60% read at between a fourth and eight grade level. Ten percent read at a third grade level or less.
Willingham’s reward for telling the truth about a broken system at a school that has taken multiple shots across its bow for hosting fraudulent classes for athletes among other transgressions has been death threats.
That’s the level of dysfunction that exists at many universities today. A woman who has dedicated her career to educating student-athletes sees a mess, describes it, and is threatened because she is convinced the student-athletes deserve better than to be passed through the system because their athletic abilities are valued.
The truth hurts because it exposes the hypocrisy at the very heart of big money college athletics. Many football and men’s basketball programs are about money, not education. That needs to change.
People who argue that college athletes have no business earning a single dollar beyond the cost of tuition, room and board, and books claim that the deal is a good one for the student-athlete because he gets a college education many would be thrilled to receive for free. When that compensation goes unused because of a lack of classroom acumen or interest, and the school passes the kid through graduation in order to avoid NCAA penalties given programs whose Academic Progress Rate doesn’t measure up, that compensation is entirely without value.
That is Willingham’s message, and she tells her truth because the kids deserve an advocate who exposes the fallacy of a system that is designed to exploit not educate. Fans phone Willingham with death threats because they don’t care about the welfare of the athletes minus what joy their on field and on court efforts provide.
Whether Willingham’s statistics are entirely accurate, or whether the claims she makes against North Carolina are the rule or the exception at other BCS universities is beside the point. Willingham is worthy of our admiration because she sees a broken system and is trying to shine a harsh light on it.
It’s an exploitive system that profits from the skill and athleticism of student-athletes, while providing them an opportunity to gain an education to which many would otherwise have no access. If only all of them had the interest and ability to process the value of the information and wisdom to which they are exposed.
Coaches are paid millions to win games. Winning requires recruiting great players. Whether a kid reads at a fourth, eighth, or 12th grade level has no bearing on whether he can play well enough to help his team win games, so the coach’s interest is in getting and keeping the kid on the floor or field. Eligibility becomes the goal, not education. That is where the disconnect lies, and where the value of the scholarship takes a hard turn south.
Sadly, most student-athletes don’t feel exploited or underserved because of systemic academic shortcuts that mask their failings or disciplinary intercessions that remove meaningful consequence from their lives. They think it’s cool that tutors complete their assignments, and that campus cops are kept at bay because of their athletic abilities.
All that student-athletes see as advantages they enjoy because of their talent is actually the removal of the educational opportunities that proponents of amateurism see as the value received for services rendered.
Willingham and those like her should be applauded for exposing the hypocrisy of collegiate athletics and the exploitation of student-athletes because according to Willingham, most wouldn’t be able to tell you what “hypocrisy” and “exploitation” mean.