Stuck in the Mud: Tar Heels’ Athletic Prowess Thumps Academic Performance

UNC is finding it difficult to sidestep allegations of blah. Photo by Bob Donnan (USA TODAY).

UNC-Chapel Hill is finding it difficult to sidestep allegations of academic fraud. Photo by Bob Donnan (USA TODAY).

Mary Willingham has been called a lot of things lately. Malicious. Dishonest. Negligent. Egocentric. And yes, racist. Then there are the accompanying death threats that squarely peg her as an enemy of the state (of North Carolina). Even the media-appointed title, “whistle blower,” carries a negative connotation—as if to suggest an unwanted disruption to cheery life in idyllic Chapel Hill.


College Sports Project, an initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, analyzed the grade-point averages of 83,728 students from 84 N.C.A.A. Division III—yes, Division III—colleges and universities.

Mary Willingham, be assured, has not been called a champion. She has not been called honest, or willing, or brave. Instead, effigies in the form of Internet memes paint the UNC academic advisor as an untrusting bigot set to bring down one of this nation’s premier research universities. Indeed, a number of unsavory online forum threads have very nearly burned Willingham at the virtual stake. Nearly.

You see, Willingham might as well have read the minds of millions of discerning Americans. Research—or prevailing common sense—has historically suggested that the academic standards by which athletes must meet are much lower than their less coordinated peers. This is not so much a poor reflection of sport-minded young adults as it is of a universal admissions system whose perpetuation of a knowingly tweaked admittance process pits brutes in the throes of academic scholarship of the highest level. Standards abandoned, academic integrity becomes nothing more than an elusive, impossibly met goal. Academic responsibility, a mere afterthought.

College athletics is undoubtedly big business. And sports like basketball and football are largely responsible for raking in the most revenue. So endowment be damned if the pillar of university culture be attacked.


2 thoughts on “Stuck in the Mud: Tar Heels’ Athletic Prowess Thumps Academic Performance

  1. Great post, David! Unfortunately, it seems that the acceptance of sub-par academic performance for athletes in certain high-profile sports has permeated all levels (Div. I, II and III) of collegiate athletics. Ms. Willingham should be lauded as a voice of reason rather than someone looking to tear down her institution. With the incredible power of the NCAA, coupled with the lure of professional sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.), that you’re dealing with, I don’t know when the cycle of greed and corruption will end.

    • “A voice of reason” is the most accurate assessment of Willingham’s actions I’ve heard. Her intent was not to disparage the university. She was not undermining a storied athletic program nor was she ruining a reputation of premier scholarship. Her “whistle blowing” rather was a call for intellectual transparency. It was a last-ditch effort to permeate a culture of academic evasion.

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