Columnists, Sports

Fish and Chipps: The real price of a free education

The University of North Carolina is one of the most prestigious and highly-regarded institutions in the world.

It is not only a great academic university, but also boasts one of the most successful collegiate athletic programs in the country that for decades has set the bar for maintaining high standards in both collegiate athletic and academic success.

So why is it that many of their “student-athletes” over the past decade have recorded reading and math test scores comparable to sixth graders? Why is it that UNC, one of the best public universities in the nation, would force student-athletes into taking easier classes?

Last week, HBO’s “Real Sports” published a report on the North Carolina athletic department’s lack of institutional control based around the funneling of their student athletes into easier classes and majors that required little to no class attendance.

According to Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor who worked with hundreds of UNC student athletes over the last decade, several football and basketball players were reading below a fourth grade level. To give you some perspective, that means that many of the UNC athletes you’ve watched on TV every weekend for the past decade were almost illiterate.

UNC isn’t the only university to place athletes into easier majors in order to maintain financial and athletic success. Almost every major Division I school has athletes that have failed the basic math and reading tests.

Willingham began working for UNC in 1999, and over the course of a decade, watched as more and more student athletes come to her not knowing how to read, write and compute simple math problems.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that nearly for 20 years, UNC’s Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never actually met. Internal reviews done by the school found that more than 500 grades were changed without any official reason, giving football and basketball players passing grades without even attending class.

“I was part of something that I came to be ashamed of,” Willingham said. “We weren’t serving the kids. We weren’t educating them properly. We were pushing them towards graduation, and that’s not the same as giving them an education.”

What Willingham is referring to is the NCAA’s new graduation requirements that were implemented during the 2011-12 school year. These new regulations require that each school graduate a certain number of student athletes per year or else face the harsh penalty of not playing in the postseason.

Could you imagine UNC not playing during March Madness?

Well, neither could the Tar Heels.

Instead of actually guiding their student athletes toward a meaningful education, Willingham says many football and basketball players continued to be funneled into classes that never occurred and only required a final paper to pass the class.

In the summer of 2013, two years after UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp fired head football coach Butch Davis and accepted the early retirement of athletic director Dick Baddour, Willingham conducted a study that found 183 academically “at risk” UNC athletes from 2004-2012.

“I’ve sat with these kids. Some of them can barely read,” Willingham said. “We have to meet them where they’re at and teach them to read.”

Michael McAdoo and Bryan Bishop are former UNC football players who worked with Willingham and say they were part of UNC’s operation. Both players told Real Sports correspondent Bernard Goldberg they didn’t choose their major, African American studies, but it was chosen for them.

The NCAA is a multi-billion dollar per year business. People say collegiate athletics will never be in the business of making money, but clearly that’s not the case.

In a world where the rich continue to get richer while the poor continue to get poorer, I ponder this world of collegiate athletics and wonder why the people in power continue to distort and take advantage of our “student athletes.”

UNC isn’t the first school to rob athletes of a college education, and they certainly won’t be the last.

But let’s stop pretending that colleges, even the world’s most prestigious ones, truly care about giving their student-athletes a meaningful education.

College athletics is a monopoly that uses amateur athletes’ achievements to make billions of dollars. The schools tell you its fair because they provide a free education and a college degree, but former players like McAdoo and Bishop suggest otherwise.

The college sports world needs more people like Mary Willingham to speak out against today’s collegiate athletics, because according to the NCAA, the majority of student-athletes “will be going pro in something other than sports.”

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