We have repeatedly discussed the corrosive effect on schools with large sports programs. This influence can be seen in lower academic standards to ethical violations to actual shielding of criminal conduct. Despite such scandals, the blind support for popular football and basketball programs continues with excessive salaries for coaches and the continued use of students for this profitable and popular non-curricular function. Professor Mary Willingham is feeling the full brunt of that distortive and often unhinged support for sport programs. She committed the sin of publishing a study showing lower standards for athletes in money-making teams for the university. The reaction was an array of threats against her life and a university that has disavowed her research after first denying knowing of research that it once supported. The university has now gone into radio silence — adding to the appearance of yet another institution unwilling to address such problems.
Willingham was given access to data by the university and she found that between 8% and 10% of the school’s football and basketball players are reading below a third-grade level. The university seemed to go immediately on the offensive, including questioning her data showing a basketball player who could not read or write. What is interesting is the statement that “University officials can’t comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data. University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met.” However, Willingham says that the data came from the University and remains in the possession of the University.
At the same time, Willingham has received dozens of death threats from fans of the university teams. She has been a source of the local media investigation into the program and is considered a whistleblower by many.
You will recall our recent discussion of the criminal charge against a former North Carolina professor at the heart of this scandal. At the time, we discussed how the university has attempted to portray Julius Nyang’Oro, the former chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as some rogue employee and how doubtful it was that a few bad apples were responsible for these violations. The reaction to Willingham reinforces that suspicion and greatly damages the academic reputation of this fine institution. As we have seen so many times before, the University seems to be rallying around its profitable sports programs rather than the academic mission that defines the school. The death threats against this professor only magnify the concerns that major sport programs are creating a grotesque problem for schools who use athletes as sources for revenue and publicity.
As many of you know, I love football. However, there comes a time when sports threatens the very soul of an institution. The University of North Carolina (and particularly its faculty) needed to make a choice as to whether it is a leading academic institution or just a facilitator for sporting events.