Bad Sports

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By Paul M. Barrett,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

The fake classes scandal at Chapel Hill and the $16 billion business of college athletics.

Sitting in Memorial Hall at the heart of the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, Mary Willingham wondered what William Friday would want her to do. As she listened to the eulogies, Willingham pondered another aspect of Friday’s legacy. In his last decades he’d tried to stir discussion about whether commercialized intercollegiate athletics was distorting higher education. That’s why Willingham had approached Friday in his 92nd and final year. In private conversations, she’d told him about her mounting anxiety that rather than educating its recruited athletes, UNC was playing a shell game to keep them from needing to study at all. She’d told him about basketball and football stars who read at a grade school level. She confessed that she’d helped steer some of these young men—many of them black—into lecture classes that never met. Worst of all, given Carolina’s racial history, the phony courses were offered in the black studies department.

Acting as an unnamed source, Willingham had been feeding information since 2011 about academic fraud to a reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. The coverage had put UNC on the defensive. But rather than seriously investigate the connection between sports and classroom corruption, top university administrators used vague committee reports to obfuscate the issue. Willingham’s conversations with the elderly Friday hadn’t addressed the tradecraft of whistle-blowing. Still, he’d encouraged her to act on her concerns. “At his memorial,” she says, “I realized I had to speak up.” In November 2012, she went public with what she knew.

“We pretend,” [says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina], “that it’s feasible to recruit high school graduates with minimal academic qualifications, give them a full-time job as a football or basketball player at a Division I NCAA school, and somehow have them get up to college-level reading and writing skills at the same time that they’re enrolled in college-level classes.” Willingham’s experience, Southall adds, shows how “we’re all kidding ourselves.”

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