The votes are in — Mary Willingham is Whistleblower Insider’s 2014 Whistleblower of the Year! Ms. Willingham is the former educator at the University of North Carolina who went public with her concerns about the university’s major failings in educating its big money athletes and has been on a continued quest to clean up college sports. We recently shined the Whistleblower Spotlight on Ms. Willingham, highlighting her struggle as a whistleblower against a prestigious university and an all-powerful NCAA.
As an academic advisor to UNC football and basketball players, she saw major problems with the system, including the steering of many of the school’s star athletes into fake classes as a means of maintaining their athletic eligibility. She saw that for many of the so-called “student-athletes” she worked with, they were doing work at the same level as her own elementary school and middle school age children. When the school refused to do anything about her concerns, she went public with research findings revealing shockingly low literacy levels of some of the school’s top athletes. Many of her claims have since been backed up by an independent report and are now the subject of a recently-filed lawsuit against the school — brought by UNC’s former women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants and football player Devon Ramsay — for providing them and other student athletes an inferior education.
Ms. Willingham has also been on a nationwide campaign to get the NCAA, other universities and the government to take action. She started the Literacy Before Legacy project to gather support in “sending a message to the leaders at the NCAA, universities, and in Washington DC, that this game of charades must end. Billions of dollars are being made off the backs of our college athletes and in exchange they deserve a real academic opportunity . . . [to ensure] our celebrated athletes have a real chance at the game of life.” For Willingham, it is all quite simple. “We can fix it. We can do better than this, and we can still enjoy game day.”
Ms. Willingham had tough competition for the title this year. The other nominees were courageous and stood their moral ground to do what they believed was right. Other nominees included: Robert MacLean, Shelly Doss, Alayne Fleischmann, and Carmen Segarra. Robert MacLean is the former federal Air Marshal who was fired after reporting on the government’s plan to pull security coverage from flights due to budgetary constraints despite the warning of an imminent terrorist threat to our skies. Only two weeks ago the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on his whistleblower retaliation claim against the TSA. Shelly Doss is the former environmental compliance specialist at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation who was fired after raising numerous environmental, safety and radiation-related issues at the country’s largest environmental cleanup site. Alayne Fleischmann is the former JPMorgan employee who after keeping quiet for years finally went public with her allegations of securities fraud at the bank when the government failed to pursue criminal charges in what she called one of the “easiest white-collar crime cases that you’re ever going to see.” And Carmen Segarra is the former New York Federal Reserve Bank examiner who was fired for refusing to back off her charges that Goldman Sachs was engaging in serious conflicts of interest.
While all of our nominees received a hearty number of votes, Ms. Willingham came out ahead to capture the title. One voter echoed the sentiments of many voters when he said Ms. Willingham “helped unearth the most extensive college cheating scandal involving all major men & women’s sports at UNC over a 20 year period.” Others commented that she won their votes by standing up “to a college administration that continues to deny the validity of her charges” and for standing up “for the college athlete and against a system that all too often exploits their talents and sacrifices their ultimate well-being in the name of $$$.”
Hopefully, Ms. Willingham and all our other nominees’ courage in standing up for what they believe in, along with the positive outcomes they have achieved, will inspire more whistleblowers to stand up and speak up in the coming year.
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