On January 14, 2014, a segment ran on the ESPN show “Outside the Lines” discussing the latest scandal revelations at the University of North Carolina. Mary Willingham was featured, as well as other specialists in the fields of college athletics and the media. Bob Ley, the no-nonsense reporter who is not afraid to tackle tough issues, was the show’s moderator.
He gave a quick recap at the show’s start: “The current issue is (a) study of reading levels which paints an abysmal picture of incoming athletes. Mary Willingham did that study as a graduate student, working as a learning specialist with UNC athletes.” Ley then went on to recount some of the earlier words of Willingham: “(In) This July email to several professors, she says, ‘I’ve reviewed academic data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012. About 160 athletes are admitted each year. Although several teams are represented in this group, the great majority of the students, 85 percent, come from the revenue sports, men’s football and basketball. These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of university classrooms. 60 percent of these students have reading scores below the 50 percent range… Unless we offer intensive reading instruction and a course of curriculum for our profit sport athletes, academic fraud will continue.”
Willingham plainly said what she felt (and what numerous other data sets dating back to the mid-1990's had strongly suggested) had been occurring for years at UNC: academic fraud.
ESPN’s Andy Katz had spoken with head basketball coach Roy Williams the day before the airing of the show. When asked why Williams did not plan on meeting with Willingham to discuss the claims that one of his former players was illiterate, Williams had this to say in terms of his rationale: “Because I don’t think that’s my job… I should be the one to try to determine whether we should play zone or man to man. I should not be the one to determine whether or not information in an academic area is appropriate or inappropriate.”
Williams would go on to selectively choose certain statistics from the past in order to paint a rosier situation than actually existed at the university. “We’ve only had one senior that didn’t graduate,” he said. “They don’t give those degrees away. I mean, I went to school here. They don’t give those degrees away.” Not mentioned at all was the documented data of years of fraudulent courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, a major that multiple past UNC basketball players had chosen. Only one senior had not graduated, according to Williams. But how many of those other graduating seniors had taken fraudulent and/or nonexistent classes to bolster their GPA’s and eligibility? Much more on that topic will be discussed in the coming months.
Later in the “Outside the Lines” show Bob Ley spoke directly with Mary Willingham. At one pointed Ley asked her if she felt her employment was endangered by speaking out, to which Willingham replied: “Well, I think my employment has been in danger since I began speaking out last year. … I was demoted, my title was stripped, and lots has happened.”
Ley then directly brought up the topic of the AFAM department and whether there had been any willing participation of academic fraud on the school’s part: “I want to ask you, in your time working closely with the athletes during those seven years, did you see any evidence of these players being involved in these so-called “no-show” classes out of the Afro-American and African Studies department? … Did you see people in the athletics area moving kids and guys and women towards those programs, directing them there?”
Willingham’s response: “Yes, we directed them to paper classes. I’ve said that before. We as academic advisers directed athletes to these paper classes, and we knew they existed. I believe that the administration knew they existed.”
One of the guests on the show that day was David Ridpath, the president-elect of the Drake Group, which advocates reforms in athletics. Ley said to Ridpath: “What you just heard and what you know about this Carolina situation, which has been around for a number of years. What’s your take on where we stand on it right now?”
Ridpath’s response did not mince words: “I think the issue that we have from an academic perspective is that we want academic integrity and the chance for everyone to have a shot at a real education, not a manufactured education just to maintain eligibility. That’s the core issue.”
Next, Ridpath would touch on a troubling matter than had arisen over the prior few years, and which will be given more attention in the months to come: the NCAA. Ridpath said: “Beyond that, we have a serious problem with the NCAA looking away when they have punished others for much less academic fraud, and much less of a direct involvement, or indirect involvement, if you will, from the athletic department. … It’s shameful that Mark Emmert, (and) the new director of enforcement John Duncan, that they have not taken action to investigate the academic fraud at North Carolina and have accepted what I would argue with Mary on the whitewashed reports of North Carolina as gospel, and basically saying no NCAA violations have been committed. I was part of academic fraud cases where it was determined by the NCAA there was academic fraud for much, much less.”
The “whitewashed reports” to which Ridpath referred covered several university-sanctioned (and possibly controlled) reviews over the past few years – reviews that will be given much more attention and scrutiny in the future.
The following day, January 15, 2014, an article appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer that gave further credence to some of the information that Willingham had shared with Bob Ley. In an article penned by investigative reporter Dan Kane, former UNC football player Michael McAdoo concurred that players were placed into certain classes by the school’s academic advisers. McAdoo had earlier been kicked off of the football team in 2010 due to issues with one of those fraudulent courses, AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina.
“They pretty much put me in that class,” McAdoo said of the counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. He said he was put in his first no-show class the spring semester of his freshman year, according to the article. He said counselors told him, “it’s pretty much a class that you take just to get your GPA up.” McAdoo said he and other athletes were happy to have the classes. There was no class time, and the papers could be completed at semester’s end. “I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “I was young and they was like, ‘You could get a quick three (credit) hours.’ “ He said he never received anything less than an A-minus in the classes until one of his papers was found to have received impermissible assistance from a university tutor. Like many other issues, that too will be discussed in further detail in the future.
In closing, McAdoo had this to say: “I felt like I was done wrong. The university didn’t stand up; they didn’t have my back. They said academics is the first thing they were going to push – ‘You are going to do academics and then play sports.’ But come to find out it just felt like it was all a scam.”
A day later on January 16, 2014, CNN gave a brief update saying that UNC would investigate Willingham’s claims over athletes’ reading abilities. Some of the information coming from the school was disturbing, however – not only in their continued treatment of Willingham, but also in the selective nature of how they chose to present data.
UNC officials had talked with Willingham several days earlier in what they had described as a “cordial” meeting. Willingham, however, described it as being “condescending”. The school had continued to dispute her findings, and her university approval to do the research had also been pulled by UNC.
Other quotes in the CNN article showed that when trying to dispute some of the points Willingham had made, the school chose a very narrow window of data. University officials “pointed out that in 2013, no student-athletes were admitted with scores below the threshold, and in 2012, only two student-athletes in the revenue sports were admitted with scores that low.” The problem with that weak informational offering was that Willingham’s research had covered the years 2004-2012. So not only was the university referencing one year (2013) that had not even been a part of the original research, but they were also ignoring eight other years that Willingham had covered.
The practice of cherry-picking data and not presenting the entire scope of a story was nothing new to the school, its administrative leaders, and presumably a host of Public Relations firms that had been on contract over the past several years. Once again, that is yet another topic which will receive scrutiny in the future. A major announcement on that front is now no more than two months away.