Mary Willingham has received death threats from social media users. She’s looked at by some with disdain. All because she decided to step forward and help bring to light what was going on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
Willingham, then a school’s academic tutor for UNC players, finally let it be known that she was the “unnamed source” for a local reporter’s investigative reporting on the school having set up fake classes, changed grades and awarded worthless degrees for football and basketball players — too many of them were Black — for at least a couple of decades.
“I want to do right by them because I was part of the problem,” says Willingham during an MSR phone interview on the “hundreds” of UNC players she worked with during her seven years as a tutor. “I had 36 students at a time, and over the years I ran the tutoring program and supplemental instruction. I also was the first office inside [the athletics counseling office] and I knew so many football and basketball players, but also other sport athletes as well.”
This academic fraud of gigantic propositions seemingly has stayed in the shadows — some suspect because it is highly regarded and seemingly pristine-clean North Carolina. It definitely isn’t Minnesota, who got caught back in the 1990s ghostwriting papers for players and lost seven years of records as punishment.
Sadly, many players who didn’t do anything wrong had their Gopher basketball playing careers whitewashed into oblivion.
But nobody is talking about why North Carolina is still playing without yet being punished by the NCAA, the same folk that ruled that the Gopher officials had to forever erase records and other on-court accomplishments. It is troubling especially after a school-conducted investigation singled out the UNC’s Black studies department as the sole suspect, forced its dean out the door, and declared the case closed.
Accepting UNC’s determination of what happened there is like Tony Soprano self-investigating himself, and finding Big Pussy as the culprit, whacking him out, then telling the feds that everything is now alright. Apparently the NCAA is allowing Carolina to be Soprano-like in this mess.
“No one is willing to talk about publicly about [it] and what I am blowing the whistle on,” notes Willingham, who’s now wearing the scarlet ‘W’ as the Tar Heel whistleblower. “I’m a middle-aged White woman, and I’m an educator least expected to come out and say all this. I have two sons and a husband, and they all watch sports. They are proud of me for standing up.”
Willingham also is featured in this week’s “Another View” on the newspaper’s print edition. “It’s hard to find enough people in the country who will stand up and say what’s truth and what’s really wrong with this entire NCAA system.” She also calls the NCAA “a very scary cartel.”
“It’s like organized crime — a very scary organization, very wealthy and powerful, and people are afraid to say anything against them. I still have my thumbs — I plan on keeping them.”
Then turning serious, Willingham told the MSR that she plans to keep fighting for what’s right, even after school officials demoted her. There probably are some Tar Heels fans who feel that she’s done enough and would gladly chip in on a one-way ticket out of Chapel Hill for her as well.
“I am not going to step down,” she proclaims. “I told the university that I am not stepping down in any of this. I am going to finish this mission all the way through, no matter what.”
Finally, Willingham is encouraged that through it all, of the support she’s received as well: “I’ve had over 3,000 positive emails from people across the country who are either working in athletics, post-secondary education or K-12 — some athletes, some parents. The positive response is overwhelmingly.
“So I think that these people in our country are finally realizing, and finally seeing that this is a corrupt system and these guys deserve so much better from all of us,” she concludes.
See more on Mary Willingham on her blog, www.paperclass.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com