UNC Adviser Faces Death Threats After Claiming Ex-Basketball Player Was Illiterate

And the university has disavowed her research, which suggested that up to 10% of basketball and football players read below a third-grade level.

North Carolina head basketball coach Roy Williams. Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

A University of North Carolina academic counselor is facing death threats and skepticism from her administration after releasing research showing between 8% and 10% of the school’s football and basketball players read below a third-grade level.

In a CNN story last week about her research, Mary Willingham said she knew of a former UNC basketball player who was unable to read or write. “And then she found he was not an anomaly,” the report said. “Soon, she’d meet a student-athlete who couldn’t read multisyllabic words.”

UNC released a written statement saying it didn’t believe Willingham’s story and that it wasn’t able to corroborate her research.

“We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction,” the statement said. “Our students have earned their place at Carolina and we respect what they bring to the University both academically and athletically.”

Willingham told CNN that she’s received at least four death threats and more than 30 other “alarming messages.” “Not people who disagree, people who put in the subject or body (of the e-mail) straight-up hate speech,” she said.

Willingham said she’s also gotten notes of support from other academic advisers around the country.

A graduation adviser with access to student files, Willingham says that while working as a tutor for athletes between 2003 and 2010, she witnessed NCAA violations but signed forms attesting that she had not seen any rules broken. Around that time, numerous investigations revealed systematic academic fraud perpetuated at UNC on behalf of athletes, with students “given grades for classes they didn’t attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper.”

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