The star witness in the prosecution of the athletics programs at the University of North Carolina is in fact guilty of a literary offense she accused some Tar Heel athletes of — plagiarism.
It turns out that Mary Willingham, the whistleblower who rebooted the case against UNC with some incredible allegations, used other people’s words without proper citations when writing her thesis, titled Academics & Athletics — A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs,” to earn her master’s degree in 2009 from UNC-Greensboro.
When confronted with the allegation by an heretofore accomplice in the 4-year-old rant against UNC, the Raleigh News and Observer, the talkative Willingham should have gone mute. Instead, she muttered this: “Whatever I did, I did, and, you know, whatever. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
It could be true that Willingham is a plagiarist and that all of her accusations against UNC are true.
But since three independent experts looked at her previous claims about the reading abilities of some athletes at UNC and found that she came to faulty conclusions based on the data, the evidence is that Willingham is either incompetent or is purposely exaggerating her claims. Those claims, which have been often repeated with very little scrutiny by the media, include that some athletes were essentially illiterate, that bogus classes were created to keep at-risk athletes eligible to play, and that these athletes were steered toward those classes.
There were problems at UNC that were identified by the NCAA: Some football players took benefits, not from coaches or fans, but from rogue agents motivated by a future payday. The price was heavy: a promising football season in 2010 became mediocre with the suspension of more than a dozen players, some of whom were later vindicated; 15 scholarships were forfeited over a three-year period; and the Tar Heel football team was denied a bowl appearance after winning the ACC’s Coastal Division in 2013.
Additionally, the football coach when the problems arose, Butch Davis, was fired, the athletics director at the time, Dick Baddour, fell on the sword, and the chancellor, Holden Thorp, resigned.
There have been multiple investigations of UNC athletic programs with the first one recently celebrating its 4th birthday, and none of Willingham’s allegations have been proven true, yet casual observers, not just partisans, accept them as such. Not a single UNC coach, past or present, has been proven to be guilty of anything.
Former Gov. Jim Martin led one of the investigations that concluded the scandal was academic, not athletic, but critics weren’t satisfied and UNC tried again to placate.
The university is now paying $900 an hour to Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. attorney and chief of staff for the FBI, to conduct another investigation, which is more promising because he has had access to key players who were not interviewed by Martin. It is roundly believed that the NCAA will review Wainstein’s report to see if more penalties are warranted.
At some point, all of this will end. It might have already except that Willingham made her incredible allegations early in 2014 when the story was running out of oxygen, and the media, instead of doing its job and asking tough questions, gave her a bullhorn.
UNC clearly shares in the blame here: It was the university that hired Willingham as a learning specialist to help struggling athletes when she clearly isn’t qualified.