Willingham’s Written Testimony: Hearing on Promoting The Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes


Written Testimony of Mary Willingham

Commerce Science and Transportation Committee

Hearing on Promoting The Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes

July 9, 2014

I worked as a Learning and Reading Specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in the Academic Support Program for Athletes from 2003-2010. I left athletics because of pervasive cheating and continued to work for the university as an assistant director, academic advisor, and clinical instructor until May 2014. My previous positions include High School Teacher and Corporate Human Resources Manager for two Fortune 500 companies. I have a B.S. in Psychology from Loyola University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. I earned a lateral entry North Carolina Teaching License, K-12 Learning Disabled, and am a trained Reading Specialist. My research includes studies on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), university admission procedures for revenue-sport athletes (hereafter I will refer to these as ‘profit sports’ – Division I men’s football and basketball), and those athletes’ basic skills deficits, as well as the incidence of Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder in that community. I was privileged to meet and assist hundreds of students during my 11 year tenure at Carolina.

I blew the whistle on academic fraud in athletics on multiple occasions. My claims regarding academic fraud and admission inconsistencies have been proven to be true during several of the ongoing academic/athletic investigations since 2011. I left the university this past May (2014) after being subjected to retaliation and a hostile work environment. I’ve filed a complaint with the intention to return to the institution. Universities such as Carolina must protect faculty, staff and students from retaliation, especially in the face of big time college sport. I was not afforded such protection. My institution does not have a whistleblower protection policy or procedure in place to assist employees. Throughout my career at UNC-CH, I witnessed firsthand how the NCAA is run similarly in nature to a cartel and its member institutions rule by fear. I have heard discretely from hundreds of colleagues across the country who have also witnessed academic fraud in their college’s athletic programs. They might be willing to come forward if they were offered protection and their institutions were educated about the law from an independent government agency such as the Government Accountability Project.

Revenue-sport (football and basketball) athletes, and many other athletes in other sports, do not have access to all 78 majors at UNC-CH, but rather cluster in two or three majors. They are unlike the general student population, as their demanding sport schedules prohibit the opportunity to hold a part-time job, participate in internships, attend classes in the late afternoon or early evening, go on spring break, leave for winter break, study abroad or be student-teachers. They are separated from the student body by the way that they dress (in gear), the classes that they take (clustering), mandatory summer school enrollment, and separate facilities they use for studying and tutoring. At UNC-CH, it is similar to segregation. Separate, but not equal. The revenue-sport athletes spend at least twice as much time in their sport than they do in class or studying. Non-athletes spend, on average, 20 hours per week studying and 15 hours per week in class. That leaves time for part-time work, internships, clubs and leisure. They are not required to travel with any of these activities.

Giving athletes the right to negotiate compensation and/or other benefits for the use of their names, images and licenses in televised collegiate contests would provide leverage for them to demand a real education without the threat of scholarship loss. In fact, they could seek more substantial compensation in the form of larger scholarships. As long as institutions are permitted to use athletes like unpaid labor, the educational institutions will continue to allow coaches to recruit underprepared athletes, and to allow admissions directors to admit them, all the while turning a blind eye to the sham education they are receiving.

For instance, at the institution where I worked, in the case of the football team which competed in a bowl game in December of 2013[1]:

• 17 regular players have an overall cumulative grade point average of 2.3[2]

• They accumulated 10 semesters of academic probation (below a 2.0)

• Together they have 29 F’s and 53 D’s on their unofficial transcripts

• Together they took a total of 48 drama classes even though not a single athlete among them majors in drama

Their so-called educational scholarships are worthless because there is little to no learning taking place. Most of these “student athletes” will never receive a degree. For example, if one (or more) of the athletes on the bowl team want to pursue a career in medicine, they have probably already had to skip a few of the basic pre-med requirements. With proper academic programming, and reasonable eligibility rules[3], the university could have assisted him in preparation.

Concomitant with these athletes struggling to achieve in the classroom while maintaining work weeks well in excess of 40 hours, the 15 institutions[4] in the Atlantic Coast Conference in which these athletes play will share $40 million[5] dollars in bowl appearance money. Coaching staffs will receive significant bonuses and salary increases. The athlete-laborers will receive nothing but a trip and a watch or iPad as a gift from the bowl hosts. Their coaches and athletic directors, adults who should know better, make them masquerade as college students. Chancellors, faculty and staff at these institutions remain silent, ignoring the central mission of the institution day in and day out, because they are afraid to lose their position if they criticize this system and the truth emerges. Trusting the NCAA or institutional spokespersons who profess to be conducting an “educational sport” program is hypocrisy of the highest order.

The overwhelming majority of the young athletes I was privileged to work with told me that they wanted an education. If given the right to bargain collectively, I believe they will force institutions to provide them with remediation programs, diagnostic assessments, and accommodations for learning disabilities. The K-12 school districts that many of these athletes come from do not necessarily have the resources to provide them with a solid education, but they are all capable of learning. These athletes deserve guaranteed 4- or 5-year scholarships that will enable them to earn true college degrees and become professionals in something other than their sport.

They deserve disability policies – paid for by their institutions – that protect them against loss of scholarship and future earnings in the event of injury. This would allow them to remain in school and receive a degree rather than depart earlier for the opportunity to turn professional.

These athletes should not have to register for a full 12 credit hours each semester if the institution that recruited them knew they were reading at a fifth-grade level and needed to spend six credit hours each week learning how to read at a college level.

Athletes must have access to all courses, degree programs and other college programs such as study abroad, internships and research opportunities, which they are now prohibited from enjoying because it conflicts with practice or spring football. Athletes who don’t graduate because they turn professional or cannot make it academically should be allowed to come back in the future, on full scholarship paid by the institution that took advantage of them.

Athletes realize that the $2,000 in cash annually that the NCAA might now provide if the cost of attendance is adjusted would be momentary and hollow relief, especially when it doesn’t change the abusive system they are a part of. The young athletes that I worked with were smart, thoughtful and intentional. They recognize that the bowl game vacations, iPad door prizes and other trinkets are all part of the scheme used shamefully to impress immature young people. They know that a real education, one that leads to a real degree, something that they and their families want for them, is priceless.

Instead of giving them access to learning in order to foster prosperity (in a manner consistent with university mission statements), universities are holding athletes back by subjecting them to the amateur rules of organizations claiming to focus on student-athlete development as an integral part of higher education. It is improper for a nonprofit organization to engage in professional sport commerce and not be taxed when the institution is failing to fulfill its educational promise to the great majority of those who do the actual work. The real graduation rate of our revenue sport athletes, particularly our African-American football players, is embarrassing and unacceptable [6]. UNC-CH, has sadly admitted to tolerating a fraudulent paper class system of eligibility that was in existence in its African and Afro-American Studies Department for more than two decades. This is a system that athletes, advisors, coaches and administrators all knew about, but for which only two people have been blamed. The NCAA originally looked the other way[7]; it had to, because it is in the business of making money and not making good on its promise of providing a legitimate education for all athletes. The NCAA announced last week that it is now returning to campus. I believe that this return is driven by shame and embarrassment from media coverage, the O’Bannon case, and the findings of the latest high profile investigator, Kenneth Wainstein. The findings should be able to answer one very important question. Can athletics and academics legitimately coexist in Division I revenue sports? It is my opinion, given the current structure that they cannot.

Athletes have been conned by the system into majoring in NCAA eligibility rather than learning to improve their reading and writing. I strongly believe that we can design programs and learning environments that will make up for the ground they have lost to misplaced priorities. These programs are expensive, and they will be provided only if athletes have the leverage they need to insist on a real education. After all, they provide us with entertainment on game day, bring money into the university from alumni who love to celebrate winning teams, and fund the huge salaries of their coaches. They currently have no voice in a system that misuses power and manipulates data while using propaganda to convince the public and courts that amateurism is essential in order to integrate academics and athletics. Truth and integrity can only be restored when our talented athletes are given the rights they deserve under the law.

Respectfully submitted,

Mary Willingham


[1] Willingham /O’Bannon Case Declaration

[2] Average UNC GPA 3.2 for all students

[3] Chemistry and biology classes require on the average 10-12 hours of study time per week, not including lab work,

there is no reason why the NCAA cannot permit pre-med majors from carrying lighter course loads during a

football season if it really cares about athletes leaving the University with a bona fide education.

[4] 11 made a bowl appearance following the 2013 season

[5] http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/news/2011/12/08/acc-bowl-revenue-expected-to-top-40m.html

[6] http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/files/2012/09/AGG-Report.pdf

[7] http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/11/08/3352200/ncaa-unlikely-to-punish-unc-for.html


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