On January 8, 2014, CNN published a piece alluding to poor reading levels among some college athletes – even to the point of illiteracy. UNC was heavily featured in the report, in large part due to data provided by a learning specialist who had formerly worked with athletes at the university.
The analysis was titled “Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” and was fronted by Sara Ganim, the reporter who had spearheaded the initial investigative stories into the Jerry Sandusky (Penn State) case. The learning specialist in question was Mary Willingham, who had worked closely with UNC football and basketball players for multiple years during the previous decade. Research data gathered and extrapolated by Willingham revealed the following: Out of 183 UNC athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012, 60% read between fourth-and-eighth grade levels, and between 8-10% read below a third-grade level. One basketball player, according to Willingham, could neither read nor write.
Based on a January 10, 2014 article in the Raleigh News and Observer, UNC (and specifically head basketball coach Roy Williams) “strongly disputed” the data that had been reported by Willingham to CNN.
The university could have acted like a true institution of higher learning and publicly supported the professional findings of one of its own researchers, in the process showing the desire to look deeper into the matter to determine the depth of the troubling revelations. Instead, UNC almost immediately released a statement saying that Willingham’s claims were untrue: “We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction.”
In specific response to the claims that one of his former players was illiterate, Williams said: “I don’t believe that’s true. It’s totally unfair. … I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess. We haven’t brought anybody in like that.”
In a follow-up piece in the same newspaper, however, Willingham offered to show Roy Williams proof that one of his players couldn’t read or write. “I stand by what I said, and if he wants to meet with me and go through his players, I’d be happy to share that,” she said. “I went to a lot of basketball games in the Dean Dome, but Roy never came and sat with me while I tutored his guys.”
A further response by Roy Williams was indicative of what had seemingly become a sports-first mentality at the school. He indicated that it was not his place to speak to Willingham about academic matters, and that he would instead take his cue on the issue from university leaders.
There were other fallouts from the initial CNN report, however. The main one was reported death threats that Willingham had received due to her “whistleblower” status. According to a follow-up report by CNN and Ganim, Willingham indicated that the threats were not necessarily unexpected. What was shocking, however, was the fact that the university where she worked had essentially brushed aside her research and results.
The university’s obstinacy garnered local media attention; the death threats made their way to the national news. Another black eye on the school was the uncovering of erroneous claims on their part – an occurrence that had happened quite often over the previous three-plus years. The University-released statement said in part: “University officials can’t comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data. University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met.”
Willingham, however, begged to differ – with proof to back up her claims. “(The data is) already available to them,” she said. “It’s in their system… They have all the data and more. It belongs to them, and they paid a lot of money for it.” Furthermore, CNN showed the university copies of email correspondence between Willingham and school officials that clearly displayed the learning specialist sharing her findings with those in charge. After being shown the emails, the school amended some of its previous statements – though without any further explanation as to the overall negative treatment of Willingham and her revelations.
The scenario: Data emerges that paints the school in a negative light. Informed and well-trained individuals give their professional opinions on the matter. The school attacks and/or downplays data and information (and the messenger), instead of confronting the issues head-on and trying to get to the heart and origin of the matter. While this may seem like a focused synopsis of a single event in early January of 2014, it is actually a familiar pattern that has taken place over and over again over the previous four years at the school – and maybe much longer. All of those previous events and patterns will be detailed in the future.