Friday, June 6, 2014

Troubles at UNC: College Athletes Being Handed Fake Degrees


Several months ago I was on my way to a ladies' luncheon at church and realized my husband had left the radio on NPR (a break from toddler tunes and Baby Einstein no doubt!). What caught my attention was an interview decrying something I, too, had long held a grudge against: athletes getting sold a false bag of educational goods. It was a very compelling, candid talk with Mary Willingham, a former reading specialist, who recently blew the whistle on her campus of University of North Carolina for grade fixing. 

Mary Willingham became a whistleblower at the university when she saw student athletes coming in that did not have a reading level beyond 3rd grade. They could not complete papers, write sentences or paragraphs and yet they were getting A's and B's in "paper classes" to make sure they were academically eligible to play. Many of these classes didn't actually exist but were labeled "independent study". Ironically, the first people who told students about these "paper classes" were the academic advisors, not the coaches as one might suspect, according to Deunta Williams who played for UNC from 2007-2010. Willingham said the ruse was very obvious when students had transcripts with A's and B's in the paper classes, but D's and F's in economics and biology.      

I encourage you to watch the video linked with the article for Willingham's resignation. She talks about how she broke the scandal because she could not live with the guilt from her sin of omission, failing to do something about a clear problem when she had the means to do so. She is a dedicated teacher who, since blowing the lid off the UNC scandal, reached out to many former athletes served there to encourage them to speak out and tell their story of how the college gave them a degree that was absolutely worthless in practical terms. Rashad McCants, one such former athlete, did speak out saying: 


"...it was common for basketball players to major in African-American Studies, said he assumed tutors writing papers for athletes was to be expected and he didn't question it while he attended UNC.
"I thought it was a part of the college experience, just like watching it on a movie from 'He Got Game' or 'Blue Chips,'" McCants said. "... when you get to college, you don't go to class, you don't do nothing, you just show up and play. That's exactly how it was, you know, and I think that was the tradition of college basketball, or college, period, any sport. You're not there to get an education, though they tell you that."        

One article I read claims that an UNC "internal review" basically invalidated Willingham's data on athletes reading levels, but if your lifeblood is being "there to make revenue for the college...there to put fans in the seats...there to bring prestige to the university by winning games" as one former athlete claims, you'll pardon me if I seem a bit skeptical of their "review".

I truly believe that what has gone at UNC is just a microcosm of the larger picture of misplaced priorities here in America. Education has to come first before sports. I am thankful that during my time in the classroom I never felt any real pressure to "pass" someone, but talked to many wearied teachers who did (especially for the real crunch time -- graduation). I am sympathetic to Willingham because as an English teacher it's very easy to see the deficits she's talking about when research paper time comes around. The guilt that comes with knowing these students will move on to the next grade or school and they are not prepared to express or organize their thoughts well is very discouraging as a teacher. You always want to do more to help, yet know that so much is out of your control beyond ensuring that you are giving them the best chance to learn about personal responsibility and priorities (i.e. those life lessons that teachers give beyond their own particular discipline).  

In the NPR interview, Willingham talked about how the athletes that reached out to her, working minimum wage jobs (since their NBA or NFL career didn't pan out), said they now felt a huge sense of shame in knowing they were no better off educationally than when they came in. They accepted the personal blame, but also anger for being fed lies about their education and not being helped to see the "big picture" of getting a false degree. They were thankful that she was going in and taking the bullets for all those student athletes who thought they were "living the dream" in college. 

McCants concludes with this:

"It's about my kids, about your kids. It's about their kids. It's about knowing the education that I received and knowing that something needs to change," he said. "This has nothing to do with the Carolina fans or the Carolina program. It has everything to do with the system, and Carolina just so happened to be a part of the system and they participated in the system, so in retrospect, you have to look at it and say, 'Hey, you know what you did wrong.'... Stand up. It's time for everybody to really just be accountable."


So this begs the question... Do you agree that sports has gained idol status in secondary and higher education?