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CHAPEL HILL -- Calling the academic experience for athletes "separate and unequal," learning specialist Mary Willingham said that a substantial number of the football and men's basketball players in her care at the University of North Carolina "did not have access to a real education."
Willingham made her claims in a brief she filed in federal court in California last week as part of a lawsuit that former college players have brought against the NCAA, which seeks payment for the use of their images and names.
Willingham was writing in support of the athletes, who are looking to receive money from television contracts, video game sales and other sources of revenue. Such payments are currently against NCAA rules.
Willingham worked as a learning specialist in UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes from 2003-10. She still works as an academic advisor at the school but no longer works with athletes.
Willingham wrote that she applied for jobs at UNC outside of athletics beginning in 2009 because "the pressure to keep students eligible had eclipsed learning and academic integrity. The cheating in 'no show' paper classes and in our mentor program (e.g., writing papers for players) had become overwhelming."
Previous investigations have found fraudulent courses and more than 500 unauthorized grade changes in the African and Afro-American studies department dating back to 1997 Willingham wrote that, because of the time commitment required to play their sports, football and basketball players she worked with did not have access to the same educational opportunities as other students and were primarily steered toward three majors -- communication studies, exercise and sports science, and African American and Diaspora studies -- because those courses "are known to be easy, manageable, or friendly," and ensure that athletes stay eligible.
Willingham wrote about one player who originally intended to take science classes so he could enter the health field, but was unable to devote the 12 to 15 hours a week he would need to pass entry-level science classes. A second player couldn't take an art class because his scholarship did not cover all of the supplies for the class, and a third player couldn't study to become a teacher because his schedule wouldn't allow for the required semester-long student teaching assignment.
Willingham also said that almost 25 percent of the approximately 800 varsity athletes at UNC were unprepared academically for classes at UNC, and that basketball and football players make up the majority of that group.
Willingham wrote that athletes who attended a second summer school session before their freshmen year were routinely screened for learning disabilities. Of the 182 athletes screened between 2005-12 (85 percent of whom played football or men's basketball), 110 had scores below a ninth grade reading level, and more than a dozen were functionally illiterate.
Willingham said that a group of 17 players on the current 2013 UNC football team combined to record 29 F's, 53 D's and 10 semesters of academic probation.
"They had also taken an inordinate amount of drama classes, though none had a major on minor in drama," Willingham wrote. "They took those classes only because they are historically passable."
Willingham declined to say how this group of 17 players was selected.
"I cannot comment on the lawsuit," Willingham wrote in an e-mail.
A football team spokesman said the team had no comment about Willingham's brief at this time.
The brief was the latest in a series of public comments Willingham has made recently about her time as a learning specialist for athletes at UNC. Willingham said that she finally spoke out after the system of cheating in the African and Afro-American Studies Department was pinned on two people -- department chairman Julius Nyang'oro and department manager Deborah Crowder.
Nyang'oro was recently charged with a felony in Orange County for accepting $12,000 to teach a lecture course over the summer that did not meet.
"(It was) a system that athletes, advisors, coaches and administrators all knew about," Willingham wrote. "But for which only two people have been blamed."