UNC Adviser Who Claimed Ex-Basketball Player Was Illiterate Says Athletes Inspire Her, Are Not At Fault

“My message…is often misinterpreted.”

Mary Willingham (right). Craig Barritt / Getty Images

A University of North Carolina academic counselor whose research has shown that many basketball and football players are unprepared for the school’s academic rigor told BuzzFeed today that her message “is often misinterpreted.”

Mary Willingham, who has faced death threats from strangers and skepticism from her administration following the release of her research to CNN last week, said she remains concerned that players she’s worked with in the past “may have left with a degree, but without a real education.”

“The young men from football and basketball that I have worked with over the years are exceptional,” Willingham said in an email to BuzzFeed. “Their talents, academic dreams and stories are what keep me going every day. I can still see all of their faces. The other thing that keeps me going is the unfairness of the NCAA sports machine that prevents these same young men from receiving a meaningful education.”

Willingham’s research has shown that between 8% and 10% of the school’s football and basketball players read below a third-grade level. In a CNN story last week, Willingham said she knew of a former UNC basketball player who was unable to read or write. UNC subsequently released a written statement saying it didn’t believe Willingham’s story and that it wasn’t able to corroborate her research.

She has also received at least four death threats and dozens of threatening messages, but said, “I am doing well and determined to stay the course. The feedback has definitely gotten better, and the last warning of ‘putting an end to my life’ was Friday.”

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.”

Willingham and her role in the scandal were prominently featured last year in Schooled: The Price of College Sports, a documentary that makes an 80-minute case for granting rights and compensation to college athletes.

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