Why Keep Athletes Eligible But Uneducated? Each football season brings exciting plays and game heroes, but Frank Deford says the real heroes are often overlooked. He points to Mary Willingham, an educator who decided to speak up.

Why Keep Athletes Eligible But Uneducated?

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Well, we're going to talk about college football now.



MONTAGNE: College football season is in its second week. Each season brings exciting plays and game heroes. But Frank Deford says the real heroes are often overlooked. He points to an educator who decided to speak up.

FRANK DEFORD: So much about big-time college sports is criticized. But the worst scandal is almost never mentioned; the academic fraud wherein the student-athletes, so-called, are admitted without even remotely adequate credentials and then aren't educated so much as they are just kept eligible.

The reason this shameful practice seldom surfaces is because all the major conference schools are guilty and everybody - presidents, trustees, coaches, media, fans - everybody accepts the corruption. Only occasionally does the truth bubble up. Enter Mary Willingham at the University of North Carolina. She was a learning specialist, working with the Tar Heel athletes who needed study help. And invariably, almost all of the most unqualified were from the revenue sports, football and basketball. She was so appalled at the academic inability of so many players that she began to speak out about the terrible hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, the university removed her from working with athletes, reduced her title and, she says, "doubled my workload. They're trying to get rid of me," she told me. Fans of the Tar Heel teams treat her unkindly. This invariably happens to college sports whistleblowers who dare reveal what is called a dirty little secret, wink-wink; but which is, in fact, a filthy, big lie.

Imagine, showing up at college, Ms. Willingham says, with reading, writing and vocabulary skills so below your classmates that nothing makes sense. She found some athletes admitted to Chapel Hill, one of the most elite public universities in the country, with fourth-grade reading skills. Worse, some are, simply, non-readers. More upsetting, she found cheating rampant. It troubles her, she admits, that she herself lied about that, filling out boilerplate NCAA forms that affirmed that there was no cheating. But everybody does it. Just tell the NCAA what it wants, and sell more tickets.

What is so sad, Ms. Willingham says, is that almost all the academically deficient players whom she worked with wanted to learn, wanted an education. But their time and energy were eaten up by their sport. There wasn't enough time left over for the student-athletes to try to become students.

But understand, as another college year begins - or, more visibly, as another college football season begins, that what goes on at Chapel Hill is substantially no different than the way athletic programs are run across the country. It's the only way to win. As Ms. Willingham says she's been told so often: Athletics is in charge of the university. She doesn't want to believe that because among other things, she says that she loves the University of North Carolina. She loves that place of learning.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday.

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