Willingham: Student-athlete problems go far beyond UNC

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 09:32 PM

Mary Willingham’s not out to smear the UNC Tar Heels, she told an N.C. Central social work class Thursday night.

It’s a broader problem, throughout the NCAA, she said: Student-athletes are promised a real education, put to work without pay in sports that rake in money for the NCAA and universities and then left to fend for themselves if they’re not star athletes with pro prospects.

“We’ve got a problem called the NCAA and they’re a cartel and no one wants to stand up to them,” Willingham told about 30 students in Emmett Gill’s class. They’re making money “on the backs of our children.”

She’s been a mentor and advisor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for several years now. Willingham suggested that some basketball and football players can’t read at a third-grade level.

Willingham has been on ESPN and HBO, sharing her insights.

So, she hasn’t been terribly surprised that many Tar Heel fans took umbrage with the message. Willingham said she’s been blasted on Twitter, called every kind of name and even received death threats.

She grew up in Chicago, though, raised by nuns.

“I’m tough as an old boot,” she said.

Willingham endures the abuse, she said, because she cares about student-athletes and wants to make sure they get the quality education they were promised -- not some “paper courses” that never meet and only require a term paper at the end of the semester.

“We’ve just moved them through the system to provide entertainment for us and we all seemed to think that was okay,” she said. “But it wasn’t okay to me.”

It wasn’t okay to Gill, either. This week, he announced he had filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights alleging Title IX violations by UNC.

Willingham told students that she expects another barrage from the university on Friday, with an announcement that once again calls into question the validity of her data. Officials at UNC could not be reached for confirmation late Thursday.

The data’s not even the point now, though, she said. The problem exists, a conversation has started and, she said, it must continue.

“The only way to break apart the cartel is in the courtroom or on Capitol Hill, through litigation or legislation,” she said.

She asked students in the class to offer advice about next steps that she should take. Some urged her to enlist parents of college athletes to speak out. Others recommended that she persuade professional athletes to talk about how they may have been shuttled through college without getting that quality education. Some also noted that these problems stretch back even further, to high school -- and Willingham noted that she eventually might target literacy in public schools.

Student Phillip White took a more philosophical approach. He compared how the NCAA treats student-athletes to a form of indentured servitude. When a student plays Division I, and they do well in the sport, perhaps they can make money at a professional level. If they don’t fare well, or they’re injured or simply decide not to pursue the sport after leaving college, they’re on their own with no real education to fall back on, he said.

“The reason you’re getting death threats is you came up against the dollar,” White told her.

“We could stop all these drunk-driving deaths, just get rid of all the ABC stores,” he said. “But we don’t do that because they can tax it. It’s not about safety. Can I tax it? Can I make money off it?”

The same holds true for the NCAA, he said.

“If you really want to fix the problem, you’ve got to cut the tree at the root. Don’t prune it,” he said. “Prune it, next season, that fruit just comes back. You’ve got to get dirty, down to the roots and cut it there. The first storm comes, that tree is going to fall.”

Willingham told students that she’s not on this campaign for personal profit, and said that she’s spent about $8,000 of her own money so far. Any money that she does make, she said, will go to a literacy cause.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about students and the next person who blows the whistle.”

Gill seemed astonished that Willingham still has a job with the university that has seemed to try so hard to distance itself from her message.

“It’s amazing she has been able to exist in that environment with everything that’s going on,” he said.

Willingham said she expects that, should the time come when she must leave UNC, “that’ll be the hardest day for me.” She loves to be on campus, she said, and enjoys working with students.

“I’m also a Tar Heel,” she said. “I’ll always be one. I love this place. But I have a job to do. Watch me. I’m getting that tree. It’s coming down.”

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