Education
General view of the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) General view of the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)  

‘WE CHEATED’ — At UNC, whistle-blowers expose a sickening athletic scam

Photo of Robby Soave
Robby Soave
Reporter

At the University of North Carolina, the extent of a shocking con — which involved dozens of athletes who for years were deliberately enrolled in fake classes and awarded passing grades to keep them eligible for sports — has now been fully publicized thanks to the confessions of two whistle-blowers.

Deans, coaches and professors at certain sham academic departments of the university were complicit in placing basketball and football players with underdeveloped learning skills in classes that didn’t exist and never actually met. The only requirements were that the students write final papers consisting of a few sentences — a task too difficult for some, who could only read and write at a second grade level. Still, they all received As or Bs.

Mary Willingham, a UNC academic adviser since 2003, became increasingly uncomfortable with the administration’s willingness to lie and cheat in order to keep its athletes eligible. After working with students who could barely read or write — but were still somehow passing their classes with flying colors — Willingham finally decided she had had enough, and began leaking information to news reporters.

UNC retaliated. Now, Willingham has come public with her shocking story of corruption right at the heart of the university. In an interview with ESPN, she detailed the extent of the scandal.

“Athletes couldn’t write a paper,” she said. “They couldn’t write a paragraph. They couldn’t write a sentence yet.”

But cognizant advisers had a habit of placing them into classes that didn’t require much writing, or even attendance.

“Students were taking classes that didn’t really exist,” she said.

These so-called “paper classes” never actually met. Students only had to turn in a final paper, and they would pass — even if that paper was illegible. An example provided by Willingham and linked on IMGUR shows how bad these “A” papers actually were.

The fake classes were mostly in the African-American studies department. Department head Julius Nyang’oro was listed as the instructor for the classes, but he was typically abroad. He has been charged with a felony for defrauding the university, and is currently fighting the charge in court.

Deunta Williams, who played football at UNC from 2007 to 2010, also denounced the scam, which he now says he is ashamed to have been involved with.

“[The advisers'] job isn’t to make Deunta Williams a smarter person, a better person,” he said. “Their job was to make sure I was able to play.”

“It was just a scam, the whole thing,” added Willingham. “It was a joke. It was so obvious. … We cheated.”

Willingham could not be reached for comment.

Follow Robby on Twitter