The North Carolina academic scandal, which embroiled the school's African and Afro-American Studies department in accusations of fraud motivated by athletic success, has long since moved off the radar. In December, a probe by former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin found that students in the AFAM department of all stripes, athlete or no, benefited from weird advantages in the department, such as "unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time," as Robbi Pickeral wrote at the time.
"This was not an athletic scandal," former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin told UNC's board of trustees. "It was an academic scandal, which is worse."
That may be so, and is a failure in its own right. But if UNC athletes were frequently enrolled in those classes, the athletic department did its players a disservice disguised as a favor, which is what one former Tar Heels professor -- Mary Willingham, who first blew the whistle on the dozens of UNC athletes being passed through no-show "independent study" courses across a number of years -- keeps loudly saying within ear shot of the media.
The News & Observer of Raleigh was in the building last week when Willingham, who is still a UNC professor, received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award from The Drake Group, which "is given annually to a university faculty or staff member who defends the institution’s academic integrity in the face of college athletics." The Drake Group's stated mission is to “to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.” During her remarks, Willingham remained as vocal as ever:
“Many athletes told me what they would like to study,” she said. “And listen to what we did. Instead, we directed them to an array of mismatched classes that have a very, very long history of probable (athletic) eligibility. And sadly, it’s still happening."
Willingham, who worked as a learning and reading specialist inside UNC’s academic support program for athletes, talked Thursday about her struggle to combat the system. She spoke of NCAA paperwork that arrived annually that required a signature and promise that she hadn’t seen cheating, or been a part of it.
“I’ve got to tell you that most of the time, I scribbled my initials on it,” Willingham said. “So yeah, I lied. I saw it – I saw cheating. I saw it, I knew about it, I was an accomplice to it, I witnessed it. And I was afraid, and silent, for so long.”
Willingham is still an assistant director in the center for student services and academic counseling, but she no longer works with athletes, many of whom she insisted were not ready to do real academic work when they arrived at North Carolina. Her list of issues runs the gamut -- athletes go to school whether they're academically prepared or not, they take whatever classes they need to get by, professors take it easy on them, and on and on. It's all very typical, really, the kind of thing we quietly assume happens at most big college athletics programs.
Of course, this is not only an insult to the players, and laughable hypocrisy in the face of the larger NCAA amateurism debate, but it's also hugely disrespectful of university faculty, people for whom intellectual respect is kind of, you know, a thing. It's probably not a good idea to make these people feel like toy soldiers. That will surely backfire, as it did at UNC.