Athlete Cheating Mars UNC’s Reputation

It was a shining outpost in a field rife with indulgences for student athletes. But now that might have changed.

01.17.14 5:10 PM ET

In the murky world of big-time college sports, where the phrase “student-athlete” has become so lopsided in favoring its second half as to render the hyphenated expression a joke, the University of North Carolina was supposed to be something of an exception.

For decades, the athletic program at Tobacco Road was relatively scandal-free, known more for seeing athletes’ names end up on the Dean’s List than on the police blotter.

But a series of reports have blackened the Tar Heels’ reputation and left defender of big-time college sports looking elsewhere for sterling examples.

First, the New York Times ran on its front page last month a long story about a revered professor of African-American studies who is accused of holding classes in which athletes made up the bulk of the enrollees. Except that the classes never met, yet the students all passed. The Times called the case “one of the biggest cases of academic fraud in North Carolina history.”

And then earlier this week a learning specialist at the university who had been working with football and basketball players revealed that 60 percent had a fourth- to eighth-grade reading level, and that between eight and 10 percent had below a third-grade reading level.

The learning specialist, Mary Willingham, also admitted that she helped students cheat, and later signed statements on NCAA forms that she had witnessed no rules violations. And she told CNN last week that she worked with one basketball player who could not read or write.

In an email to The Daily Beast, Willingham wrote, “The gap in academic preparedness between profit sport athletes and students at NCAA DI [Division 1] institutions perpetuates educational inequality. Until we acknowledge the problem, and fix it, many of our athletes, specifically men's basketball and football players  are getting nothing in exchange for their special talents.”

The university’s athletic department did not respond to a request for comment, but in an open letter to the UNC community, school chancellor Carol Folt said that some of the reports do not match up with the university’s own findings.

“Nevertheless, we are investigating all the claims being made and, if they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions," Folt added. "We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact."