University of North Carolina fails athletes, punishes whistle-blower

Slaves helped build UNC, the nation’s first public university, which opened in 1795. The original Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1885, honored students and faculty who’d died defending the Confederacy. Taking office only two years after the Supreme Court ordered an end to “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, William Friday pushed for desegregation in the face of sometimes-violent opposition. Under his stewardship, Chapel Hill earned a reputation for excellence and became a powerhouse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As she listened to the eulogies at his memorial, Mary Willingham pondered another aspect of Friday’s legacy. In his last decades he’d tried to stir discussion about whether commercialized intercollegiate athletics was distorting higher education. That’s why Willingham had approached Friday in his 92nd and final year. In private conversations, she’d told him about her mounting anxiety that rather than educating its recruited athletes, UNC was playing a shell game to keep them from needing to study at all…

Acting as an unnamed source, Willingham had been feeding information since 2011 about academic fraud to a reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. The coverage had put UNC on the defensive. But rather than seriously investigate the connection between sports and classroom corruption, top university administrators used vague committee reports to obfuscate the issue. Willingham’s conversations with the elderly Friday hadn’t addressed the tradecraft of whistle-blowing. Still, he’d encouraged her to act on her concerns. “At his memorial,” she says, “I realized I had to speak up.” In November 2012, she went public with what she knew.

…College sports is a $16 billion business, and it coexists uneasily with its host—nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions dedicated to education and research. The tension has become acute at UNC, in large part because of Willingham’s decision at Friday’s memorial service. What she disclosed has devastated UNC’s image of itself and may potentially hobble its athletic program. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing at least through 2011, UNC’s Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never met. The department also sponsored hundreds of independent study classes of equally dubious value. Internal reviews have identified forged faculty signatures and more than 500 grades changed without authorization. The students affected were disproportionately football and basketball players.

…Last summer she was stripped of her supervisory title—an action she’s appealing as retaliatory. In January senior UNC officials took the further step of publicly condemning her for suggesting that some football and basketball stars couldn’t read well enough to get through college classes honestly.

While her outspokenness and the vilification it brought make Willingham unique, her role as a secret enabler of NCAA Inc. is hardly unusual. Every Division I sports power employs low-profile advisers like Willingham without whom the facade of academic eligibility would swiftly collapse, says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

“We pretend,” he says, “that it’s feasible to recruit high school graduates with minimal academic qualifications, give them a full-time job as a football or basketball player at a Division I NCAA school, and somehow have them get up to college-level reading and writing skills at the same time that they’re enrolled in college-level classes.” Willingham’s experience, Southall adds, shows how “we’re all kidding ourselves…”

Phony courses, forgery, lies about grades characterize athletic programs at more than just UNC inside the NCAA. The hustle extends from charging the electricity costs for running stadiums to building maintenance all the way to North Carolina’s example of recycling the one paper a year required of student-athletes – from year to year!

They learn a small percentage will go on to professional leagues. The so-called student athletes learn the university will phony up sufficient paper to get them a degree if they perform well enough in their chosen big-money sport. Mostly, they learn that corruption and hustles are just as acceptable in the world of American academia as they can be on mean streets.

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