UNC’s Mary Willingham Is the Student-Athlete’s Best Friend for telling the Truth About a Broken System

by Kent Sterling

The truth isn't always expedient, but it still needs to be told, and Mary Willingham is telling it at the University of North Carolina.

The truth isn’t always expedient, but it still needs to be told, and Mary Willingham is telling it at the University of North Carolina.

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.

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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.

19 Responses to UNC’s Mary Willingham Is the Student-Athlete’s Best Friend for telling the Truth About a Broken System
  1. Rob
    January 14, 2014 | 11:10 am

    Good article. Can’t really focus though, because I swear that picture of Mary is really Dustin Hoffman in drag.

    • Tootsie
      January 14, 2014 | 11:21 am

      It’s really a trailer for Tootsie 2

    • Pauly Balst
      January 14, 2014 | 1:56 pm

      Before reading these comments, as God is my witness, I put my fingers over her hair in the picture and thought “she looks like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie….”

    • Carolina Student
      January 15, 2014 | 2:02 pm

      Rob, that is simply immature. Insulting a women on her appearance? You sound like an attention-desperate seventh grade girl.

  2. Pauly Balst
    January 14, 2014 | 1:57 pm

    This woman is a hero from what I can see.

  3. Jenson
    January 14, 2014 | 4:35 pm

    “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.”

    So, if she’s lying about it we should still admire her???

    • kentsterling
      January 14, 2014 | 4:39 pm

      There are different shades of the truth, and numbers can be used differently to bolster arguments. In no way do I believe that Willingham believes she is doing anything but telling the truth. Rather than using the word “accurate” I might have been better off with “representative”.

      • phonyreal98
        January 15, 2014 | 1:28 am

        Willingham strikes me as somebody who wants to do the right thing, and thinks she is doing the right thing, but is going about it in the worst way possible. First, she claims to have done research on the student athletes to determine that their reading levels are subpar. As a researcher, you need to publish your findings in a peer-reviewed journal before you go to the media with your findings. This protects you from being embarrassed, because your work is reviewed by 3-5 other professionals in your field to verify that your methodology is sound. This also protects the public from being exposed to, and potentially acting on, unsound research. Additionally, Willingham made it intentionally difficult for administrators to see her data and analysis when asked about it (she is quoted as telling administrators that the data is in their database and to go find it). This is another no-no in research. When you are making a claim and other professionals want to see your data, you give it to them (unless it is extremely sensitive, such as data that could be used to produce a biological weapon). This is part of the checks and balances system in academics. Third, she continues to enable the media (in general, not necessarily this article, which I think adequately states that this isn’t a problem just at UNC, but at other institutions as well) to continue to mudsling at UNC by talking to the media based on what is more than likely shoddy research. I say this is more than likely shoddy research because academic articles are almost never ready for publication without any peer-review, which she has not had. Usually what will happen when an article is submitted for peer review is that other professionals will ask the authors to make changes and/or collect more data to back up the claims the article had. To me, it seems clear that her research has not been reviewed by other professionals. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, she may have committed several research ethics violations while talking to the media. First, she identified the athlete she worked with who couldn’t read as someone on the 2003 UNC men’s basketball team. That narrows it down to ~12 individuals she could be talking about. I am not 100% sure, but this could amount to a FERPA violation (should not give out identifiable information about students along with their performances); and an Institutional Review Board (committee for research ethics for research using data provided by humans) would almost certainly not approve of this. My gut feeling is that she had something that she thought might be important (either a few data points, or the potential interpretation of a literacy test suggesting that an athlete may not be able to read), and ran with it before properly following up to ensure that her claims were indeed valid.

        TL;DR, I have reason to believe that her research is not very good, she’s jumping the gun on the criticism of UNC, while potentially committing violations of research ethics. I think she thinks she’s doing the right thing by screaming her findings at the top of her lungs (have you seen how many media outlets she’s spoken to?) but really she’s jumping the gun before her research is validated.

        • Pauly Balst
          January 15, 2014 | 10:08 am

          Spoken like a true administrative hack trying to bury an unpleasant reality about their modern day plantation owner employer/business partner. You are truly pathetic.

        • kentsterling
          January 15, 2014 | 12:05 pm

          I have not seen her quoted directly in many media outlets at all. I have seen the same quotes used again and again by different publications. In fact, in the recent spate of reports, the Associated Press was unable to gain access to her at all.

          I would choose to evaluate Willingham based upon the results her efforts cause rather than whether her data passes empirical muster. It’s not as though she is evaluating a psychological disorder or predisposition to a medical condition. This is about level of reading acumen among college students – an area where she has unique capabilities, experience, and training. Because she is an expert in the field, I trust her anecdotal testimony.

        • SAGore
          January 15, 2014 | 4:16 pm

          The peer review system in academic publishing may well be as flawed as the academic support / athletic systems of these universities.

      • bumpandrun
        January 17, 2014 | 12:08 pm

        Tell that to the Duke Lacrosse players whose professors crucified them. Please don’t think I’m naive enough to believe that every school in the country doesn’t cheat with the billions of dollars that are available to top sports programs. That being said, there are professors all over this country that hate sports because they take so much money (money that they raised) instead of it going to academics. They will do whatever they can to make the sports programs look bad. Right now Willingham’s research doesn’t seem to add up to her accusations and that is cheating which would put her on the same level as the people she is accusing. If it turns out that it is completely accurate then kudos to her for standing up. However, an article saying she is telling the truth when that “truth” could possibly be manufactured and we don’t know if it is truth or not is bad journalism just to get readers and that’s pathetic also.

        • kentsterling
          January 17, 2014 | 1:46 pm

          As you might guess, I disagree. The expectation that every truth is documented empirically is unrealistic, and would keep people from sharing their version of the truth. While it’s supposition to assume Willingham is telling the truth because of her proximity to the evaluations she was in the constant process of making, it isn’t beyond the boundaries of responsible journalism to espouse my beliefs after speaking to her and corresponding with her.

          The truths that cause the source pain are generally the most reliable, and to say that Willingham has been exposed to unpleasant circumstances because of her statements is a massive understatement. Taking her side in this mess was an easy decision that I don’t regret for a second.

  4. Tony
    January 14, 2014 | 7:29 pm

    She is one unattractive woman. I wish I knew what she is trying to accomplish.

    • Jimmy Karter
      January 14, 2014 | 9:02 pm

      No, she is not eye candy but certainly admirable for her courage. So in 2014, we have devolved into judging a woman who dedicates her life to education by a screen shot. Call her a liar because she is only proving what many others have stated as well: UNC has been cheating for decades…this is no lone wolf, rather but one of many coming forward with the painful truth the Carolina Way never existed and it’s all been a sham.

      Now, the same cowards who want to call her a liar, “media whore” and rag her appearance, would very likely cheer her efforts if she was exposing Duke or Kentucky. At the end of the day, the weak little boys who walk around in Sperry’s with light blue sweaters tied around their waists look like the classless little fan boys they really are.

    • kentsterling
      January 15, 2014 | 12:16 am

      To refer to Mary as unattractive in any way is ridiculous and shows the narrow-mindedness of those who criticize her efforts. What she is trying to accomplish is to make the education that is supposed to be the big payoff for the many millions earthed by college football and men’s basketball teams worthwhile. If the student-athletes are simply passed through, their compensation is a charade.

      Universities exist to educate, not entertain.

      • Pauly Balst
        January 15, 2014 | 10:03 am

        Yeah, right

  5. J Walker Smith
    January 17, 2014 | 5:10 pm

    I am troubled by your comment: “statistics are entirely accurate, or whether the claims she makes against North Carolina are the rule or the exception.” In fact, this is entirely about the statistics. Either the student-athletes are learning or not. The only way to assess that is with the right statistics. If you’re going to ignore the facts, then how can you make a claim one way or the other? I’m not even sure how you can claim the system is “broken” if you’re going to ignore the facts about whether it’s broken or working. What’s troubling is that you’re presuming a truth that you don’t want to put to the test against the facts. That is the classic definition of faith – something you believe notwithstanding anything to the contrary you may see around you. I really think the facts are the foundation here. If Willingham’s study turns out to be as egregiously flawed as it’s now said to be, then I think we have to hit the reset button and start over.

    • kentsterling
      January 17, 2014 | 11:18 pm

      I like that Mary is trying to affect a positive change by telling what she believes to be the truth. I am in no position to judge the veracity of her claims, but I am sure she believes her own data. I am not an expert on literacy or studies that validate reading levels, but I know when someone is trying to change a system that on too many occasions tries to push kids through academia because they have athletic value to the institution.

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