'Hero' of UNC academic scandal speaks at Capitol Hill forum on paying college athletes

Joel Brown Image
Friday, July 26, 2019
DC forum discusses paying college athletes
DC forum discusses paying college athletes.

Thursday's forum on Capitol Hill was not solely about UNC, but the woman who blew the whistle on the academic scandal here was hailed as a hero for shining a huge spotlight on what one U.S. senator is calling a civil rights crisis.

Far from the hot glare she once faced in Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham now teaches Chicago middle schoolers to read. On Capitol Hill, she shared the irony of her current job and the one she had at Carolina.

"I teach middle school students to read now. It's the joy of my life," she told the crowd. "When I went to the University of North Carolina as a learning specialist, I didn't expect to have to teach kids to read, because those kids were a lot older."

Willingham helped lift the veil on a two-decade old system of bogus classes for UNC athletes. At the forum she shared story after story of Carolina players, young men and women, she tutored, admitted to UNC on athletic scholarships but who couldn't read letters, who were unable to write a sentence.

"One of my students that comes to mind wanted to be a business major. She needed to learn to read first. She needed glasses first. That was a problem for the NCAA because it was something that they might not provide," Willingham said.

In his newly-released report, 'Madness Inc.,' Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy detailed what he sees as the exploitation in major college sports. He's lobbying to compensate players financially in what he cites as a $14 billion industry where major schools operate like the pros but for economic reasons refer to the workers as amateurs.

"The majority of those athletes are black athletes and the majority of the adults making money off those athletes are white," Murphy said. "And I couldn't help but notice that inside this sport that I love so much was a festering civil rights crisis."

The NCAA says its "rules prioritize both academics and athletics ... Allowing student-athletes to be paid for athletics performance would undermine the balance between the two."

But at the forum in Washington panelists argued the current system of paying players with an education rather than cash simply cheats them twice.

"If we're going to promise students a real education than we must absolutely deliver a real education in the very least," Willingham said.

The NCAA is currently considering a move to allow athletes to profit from the use of their names or likeness on things like jerseys or video games. Murphy said he's pleased with that, but says he will consider introducing legislation if the NCAA remains slow to act.