Cheated: Willingham expands on UNC scandal, calls NCAA a ‘plantation’

Cheated: Willingham expands on UNC scandal, calls NCAA a 'plantation' (Image 1)

The University of North Carolina had a “shadow curriculum” designed to help some athletes stay eligible, former academic adviser Mary Willingham told WNCN, and the problems were more widespread than even the Wainstein Report found.

Willingham and UNC history professor Jay Smith are publishing a book about the UNC scandal and what they term a “broken system” within college athletics nationwide. The book scheduled to be released in March is called “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes and the Future of Big-time College Sports.”

Willingham and Smith met with WNCN anchor Sean Maroney in their most extensive interview since the Wainstein Report was published Oct. 22.

Both Willingham and Smith said athletes were steered to courses for what they call “easy As” in other majors, including Dramatic Art, Philosophy, Geology, Geography and French.

“The truth is in the transcripts,” Willingham said. “And, yes, I’ve seen the transcripts.”

Both Willingham and Smith said the Wainstein Report wasn’t tough enough on UNC’s basketball program, including its coaches. Both said Carolina could be in peril of vacating at least one national basketball championship.

Willingham resigned at Carolina in the spring of 2014. She is now suing the school, asking for her position back and for damages from the University.

Willingham said she did not write the book purely for profit, but rather that she feels schools owe athletes a better chance to learn once they are on campus. She said she has “not made any money up to this point” and said making money has never been her priority.

Willingham was a key source as the UNC scandal unfolded. She had stood behind her statements despite withering criticism, including when UNC provost James Dean called her research “a travesty” at a faculty meeting in January 2014.

But her dogged questioning of UNC, and the NCAA overall, has accelerated the debate about how athletes are treated, and educated, at major universities such as Carolina.

UNC’s ‘shadow curriculum’

WNCN anchor Sean Maroney spoke at length to Willingham and Smith in the WNCN studios. Here is a summary of their conversation:

Q: Is there anything new we’ll learn with this book being released that you’ve been holding back?

Smith: We fill out the origins of this sad tale with a greater clarity, and I think to greater satisfaction even then Ken Wainstein did.

Q: Are you afraid that what we saw in the African and Afro-American Studies department spreads across other departments at UNC?

Willingham: It’s pervasive. It does spread across. There are easy classes. Pass classes. Professors who will look the other way and pass athletes. We talk about that in the book.

Kenneth Wainstein delivers report Oct. 22, 2014.Smith: Coincidentally, Kenneth Wainstein and we use the same term – ‘shadow curriculum’ – to talk about curricular pathways through which these athletes were shepherded. But that shadow curriculum for us, as we describe it, involved a lot more courses than AFAM.

Q: What other departments at UNC fall under this “shadow curriculum?”

Willingham: Well, I’m just going to say that drama departments all across the country seem to be a hotbed for hosting athletes in their classes.

Q: You have evidence that athletes at UNC were being steered to the drama department?

Smith: Oh yes.

Willingham: For years and years.

Smith: We’re not saying that in other departments at UNC there were fake courses. What we’re saying is that there were courses in geography, in drama and in French and in a number of other places that were exceptionally easy courses. They steered their advisees to all those courses.


In follow-up emails, Willingham said to add philosophy and geology to that list, saying “we single all of those departments out in the book.”

WNCN reached out to those departments for comment, not all responded.

McKay Coble, interim chair of the Dramatic Art department, said, “If students are being steered to our classes it is something I know nothing about. Dramatic Art does not offer ‘easy A’s.’ Our courses are as rigorous as they should be.”

Philosophy chair Marc Lange said, “I would be very surprised if UNC Philosophy classes has the reputation of being ‘easy As.’ Philosophy is hard and our department takes seriously our obligation to award students the grade that their levels of proficiency merit.”

And Geology chair Jonathan Lees said, “While some students may think that Introductory Geology is ‘easier’ than physics and chemistry, I am not aware that any students see our courses as opportunities for ‘easy As.’ When I teach Geology 105, the average grade is C or C-plus — no ‘easy A!’ “

Addressing the NCAA and UNC basketball program

Q: Ms. Willingham, you called the NCAA “a cartel.” That’s strong language.

Willingham: Well, they’re controlling the market, this group of men for the most part, rich, white men in Indianapolis and across the country. They’re not paying their laborers. Young black men in this country really are being used to entertain us. And they’re not getting anything for their labor.

Q: Would you call this a form of slavery?

Willingham: Yes, it’s a plantation. Men, black, young men — paying for those 26 other sports at Carolina, and we know what those sports are: field hockey, lacrosse, golf, swimming, diving and so on and so forth — white for the most part, privileged kids who have had access all their lives.

Ed. Note: The NCAA declined to comment on Willingham’s statements.

Q: UNC has spent millions to fix, to try to rectify, what you’ve brought to light.

Smith: They’ve spent their millions correcting a public relations black eye, that’s what they spent their millions correcting. They haven’t corrected the system yet.

Roy Williams addresses Wainstein ReportQ: Do you think the basketball program got off the hook in the Wainstein Report? The coaches?

Smith: Yes.

Willingham: Yes. We don’t let them off the hook in ‘Cheated.’ We don’t let them off the hook.

Q: Do you think the national championships should be taken away?

Smith: We’re not about punitive measures. I happen to think that at least one is in peril.

Willingham: But that said, those young men, they played hard and they won those games and they deserve what they got, which wasn’t very much in the first place.

Ed. Note: A UNC school official, asked to respond to the allegations from Willingham and Smith, said, “Carolina has been quite clear that it accepts full responsibility for what happened in the past, and has apologized to students, alumni, and others. The reforms we have put in place to ensure and enhance academic integrity are working and we continue to monitor and institute additional measures wherever needed.”

On the response to the allegations

Q: Has anyone reached out to you and said, ‘My coaches are telling me this. My family is telling me this. My agent is telling me this. But I believe in what you are doing.”

Willingham: Yes, I have a handful of students that I talk to, athletes that I talk to on a regular basis. Football players, basketball players. A couple of them have been in the pros, but they’re not now.

Smith: If they speak out, there will be retribution. Look at what happened to Rashad McCants. Look at the junk they were throwing to Tydreke Powell because of that one radio interview he had.

These people have suffered repercussions for speaking out. Everyone else sees that. And why would they step forward to get behind Mary? That’s a risky proposition.

Q: What is your response to those angry fans who say you are not credible, that you are trying to make a buck with this book?

Smith: I have to assume that people who allege that we’re in this for the money, don’t know too much about academic publishing because I’ve published four other books, and I’ve made a grand total of about three thousand bucks.

Q: Yes, but there’s national interest in this book.

Smith: There is. Sure there is. But maybe we will make a little bit of money, it’s possible I suppose, but is there anything wrong with that. We’ve dedicated two years of our lives into this project.

Willingham: This has cost my family thousands and thousands of dollars. I haven’t made any money up to this point in time. Money is not the issue here, and it’s not important to me, it never has been.


Willingham vowed that any money made from the book will go to funding her reading project aimed at bringing third and fourth graders up to grade level by providing tutors at no cost.

She said that is part of her way to help fix what she calls a broken system.

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