Whistleblower persecuted for exposing UNC academic scandal


While people’s busted tournament brackets dominate this year’s March Madness hoops chat rooms, once again little or nothing has been said about that proverbial 2,000-pound elephant in the room — the continued hypocrisy of college sports.

The University of North Carolina was among the 68 men’s teams and 64 women’s teams in this year’s respective NCAA tournament fields. This despite a huge academic scandal that has hovered over Chapel Hill for at least two years now involving the school offering “bogus classes” since the 1990s for mostly basketball and football players.

Ohio University Professor David Ridpath told CBSSports.com that the U of M academic scandal in the late 1990s, when class papers were ghostwritten for several basketball players, then considered the worst scandal in sports history, “pales in comparison” to the UNC situation.

Remember Minnesota’s 1997 Final Four run and their Big Ten title that year as well?  The Gophers’ NIT crown won in 1998? Six seasons of wins, points and other statistics?  All that was vacated due to NCAA sanctions because of academic fraud.

Meanwhile, North Carolina, who won two men’s basketball titles in 2005 and 2009, has not been investigated by the big, bad NCAA, who instead allowed the school to investigate themselves, concluding that the Black Studies Department was the sole culprit. Huh?

“I’m familiar with the Minnesota story,” recalls UNC former academic tutor Mary Willingham, who was “an unnamed source” since 2011 to a Raleigh, N.C. reporter working on the UNC story. She first got concerned in 2004, but later she went public in 2012 after nearly 10 percent of the Carolina athletes (2005-2012) were found “functionally illiterate,” 60 percent of nearly 200 athletes reading between the fourth-grade and eighth-grade levels and 10 percent below third grade.

As expected Willingham became persona non grata in Tar Heels country: Coaches and administrators publicly tarred and feathered her. She was demoted earlier this year after the school’s human research ethics office in

Mary Willingham Photo courtesy of UNC
Mary Willingham
Photo courtesy of UNC

January ordered her to stop her research.

That’s just a day in the life of a whistleblower, especially when it involves a sacred cow like college sport.

“Day to day, people really don’t say anything to me,” said Willingham in an MSR phone interview last week. “The hardest thing for me is that we used our African American Studies Department as the place that we ran students through bogus classes,” she said.

Where is the outrage over the fact that UNC set up a bogus system, using their Black Studies program as a faux academic front for over 200 nonexistent classes, hundreds of independent study classes that virtually required nothing more than signing your name, in order to keep mostly Black football and basketball players eligible for over two decades?

“It really was a whole system of fraud. It didn’t really start with two people, and it didn’t end with two people,” Willingham continued. “You have a group of students who left Carolina without real degrees… I talked to a few of my football players who left with African American Studies degrees and they took all those bogus classes, so now they can’t get a job with [their] degree. They say their degree is really worthless to them.”

“I think what the NCAA does is that it hides behind that ‘student-athlete’ [designation],” Willingham pointed out. “I’m a middle-aged White woman, and I’m an educator least expected to come out and say all this. I want to do right by them because I was part of the problem.”

This year an “NCAA tournament unit” is reportedly worth $1.5 million for each team. “[Players] are not getting a wage for their labor, and they are not getting real degrees,” said Willingham. “It’s happening across the country, not just at Carolina and Minnesota.

“So many fans, short for ‘fanatics,’ they love sports more than anything else. They look beyond what really is in front of their noses,” concluded Willingham on that proverbial elephant in college sport. “This is a real corrupt system where we are abusing and using young people.”


See more of our Mary Willingham interview on “Another View Extra” on this week’s MSR website.

Next: Our interview with a person who criticized a UNC Black campus group for condoning what took place at their school.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.