Mary Willingham, Whistleblower Insider’s 2014 Whistleblower of the Year, 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 had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Willingham about her win and her story.
Whistleblower Insider: Before we get started, we wanted to congratulate you on your win as Whistleblower of the Year.
Ms. Willingham: Thank you so much. I am honored.
Whistleblower Insider: Is there something unique about you or your background that made it more likely you come forward as a whistleblower?
Ms. Willingham: One thing that is important about my background is I grew up in Catholic schools. I never went to public school, so it was really exciting for me to work first in a public high school in North Carolina and then a public university. I was thinking, “wow, now I get to see how everyone else does this.” Public schools encourage you to speak up and have your own opinion, which I think is great. Also, I became an educator late in life. The first part of my career I was in human resources. I think the combination of my background in human resources and then a focus on education with the environment of a public school all played into my story and how I became a whistleblower.
Whistleblower Insider: How did you discover the academic fraud at UNC?
Ms. Willingham: I find that young people tend to be more honest and less guarded with information. So I found out when a student of mine spilled the beans in a very honest way. She was a basketball player for the school and she told me about these paper classes. She said they were easy, you don’t really have to write the paper, you can just go to the football center and grab a pre-written paper off the hard drive and submit it for an easy grade. She said no one really cared.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you know what happened to her after graduation?
Ms. Willingham: I have run into her from time to time over the years and she always had odd jobs. She got a degree, but she was not able to get the kind of job you should be able to get with a UNC degree. It weighed on my mind. I really liked her and we did not do a good job of educating her. She didn’t get what we promised her, which was a real education. I started to realize generally we don’t do a good job in this country of taking care of each other. We take care of ourselves and families, but we need to do a better job of looking beyond that, because not everyone in this country has privilege and access and those of us who do should be more concerned about those of us who don’t.
Whistleblower Insider: And is part of that, from your perspective, making sure student-athletes are taken care of by providing them a real education?
Ms. Willingham: Yes, I really began to think this way partly from my Catholic upbringing but also from living in Switzerland for a couple of years before we came to North Carolina. I thought at first the people in the county where we lived were nosy. When women went to work, someone from the county would call and say, “who is going to be taking care of your children?” And I thought, “how nosy is that?” But they were building a community and making sure that everyone is cared for. And we need to do a better job of that in this country. We are not taking care of those who need the most help, generally, and we are not even keeping our promises of an education to young people in college sports, which should not be a hard thing to do.
Whistleblower Insider: Was there a particular moment when you realized you had to speak up or had you been considering it for a long time?
Ms. Willingham: There was a moment. It was when former UNC President William Friday passed away. He was a highly respected, good man. He believed in public service, he took care of people, and he listened to people. I had spoken to him about what I knew and he was very interested in preserving academic integrity in the face of big-time college sports. But even after I spoke with him, I remained silent to the rest of the world because I was afraid. So when he died in 2012, I was sitting at his memorial and I had a strong feeling that I needed to speak up. I went home and said to my husband, “what am I going to do?” And he said, “you need a blog, everyone else is doing it!” So I wrote a blog and it went viral.
Whistleblower Insider: Has there been backlash against you for speaking out?
Ms. Willingham: Yes, there has definitely been a big backlash against me.
Whistleblower Insider: What do you think is at the heart of that? You would think most people would be in favor of a good education for student athletes.
Ms. Willingham: Well, sports fans are fanatic. You know “fan” is short for “fanatic.” Sports are our main source of entertainment. We have all of these sports channels. We go to games, we watch games, and we have fantasy football. We raise our kids around sports. The area I am in is a perfect storm of sports fans. There are three big sports schools: UNC, Duke, and NC State. And I feel that people were threatened by someone speaking up about something that consumes a lot of their lives, even though I was not speaking out against sports, but rather against the treatment of student athletes.
Whistleblower Insider: What kind of backlash have you had?
Ms. Willingham: I have had a lot of negative comments. Things like, I am an “ABCer,” which I did not understand at the time. My husband told me that it means I am “All But Carolina” – meaning, I am for every team but Carolina. I have also received death threats and hate messages. Those are mainly from men, and particularly young men. I don’t know why they think it’s ok to send someone a death threat and hate message, why they think that’s an ok thing to do. If we had a real leader at UNC they would have said, “alright, this Carolina crowd is acting in an unacceptable manner. This does not reflect on the institution.” But they didn’t and it is because they do not want to upset the people who support the school or donate money. It’s just unfortunate.
Whistleblower Insider: How do you handle all the negativity coming your way?
Ms. Willingham: Well, I think that what happens to women after they turn 50 is they just don’t care. I’m to the point where I’m tough as an old boot. Heck, my husband and I raised three teenagers.
Whistleblower Insider: Would you do it again?
Ms. Willingham: Yes, absolutely. And I am continuing to work for the cause. Whistleblowers have a lot of energy. So I’m happy to stir things up as much as I possibly can. Change is coming,
Whistleblower Insider: You sued the university for reinstatement of your position. Are there any updates to the lawsuit you can provide?
Ms. Willingham: Sure. We were in mediation and we just settled last week, but I am not free at this point to disclose the details. But speaking of lawsuits, the lawsuit that is more important is the class action filed by two former UNC athletes. I’m so proud of them, I know both of them, Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsay, and I am hopeful more will step up as the suit progresses. The university asked for a 30 day extension to answer the suit and the NCAA is seeking removal to federal court, so it will be hung up for a while in motion practice. But it is a really important case and I am following it closely.
Whistleblower Insider: You recently wrote a book with Jay Smith called Cheated. Can you tell us a little about how the book came to be?
Ms. Willingham: Yes, there was an athletic reform group in the university that Jay founded. There are a lot of amazing, wonderful people in the group, including faculty and retired faculty from the university. At the very first athletic reform group meeting in Fall 2012, right after my blog went up, Jay looked at me across the table and said “you’re going to write a book about this, you’re going to write this all down, right?” So we started talking about collaborating and decided to write the book together.
Whistleblower Insider: Does the book follow your journey as a whistleblower or is it more about UNC and the scandal?
Ms. Willingham: It is about UNC and the scandal. My story is not really part of the book. The book is very academic in nature. Jay is an accomplished historian so we really got into the nitty-gritty of how it all went down. We wrote about how it started, all nine of the investigations, the reporting that went on, the student stories, and all of the other academic issues with college sports. We also speak about the future and what we see has to happen to correct the problem. Ultimately, we concluded that the system needs to be dismantled and recreated as a real college system that’s not masquerading athletes as students. So they really are student-athletes. We have had positive reviews and some upcoming reviews. We are getting good interest and we are in a conversation about a potential film contract.
Whistleblower Insider: That is exciting. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Ms. Willingham: The point of the book is not to become rich or famous. The point is to use it as a platform to continue this conversation and to encourage students at universities, in sports management schools, and at laws schools across the country to talk about these issues. We consider the book to be a great case study. We really enjoyed getting into it, going through the archives, doing due diligence, all of it. We are hoping it moves the conversation forward and leads to reform.
Whistleblower Insider: You are also working on Literacy before Legacy. Can you tell us a little about that?
Ms. Willingham: Literacy before Legacy is something I started myself with the help of some generous donations. We have a real literacy crisis in this country. In eighth grade, only 10 percent of black males and 35 percent of white males are reading at grade level. Once again, we are not taking care of each other enough in this country. Learning to read can be easy if there is someone to teach you and support you. Being a whistleblower is one thing, but being part of the solution is even better. So my idea is to prepare students in reading and writing through a virtual reading program named PCRead.
Whistleblower Insider: Where are you in the process?
Ms. Willingham: I have a couple of fourth graders piloting the program and will soon have some high school and community college athletes as well. The program is working very well and it is encouraging to see the results.
Whistleblower Insider: Aside from promoting your book, a potential movie deal, and Literacy before Legacy, what is next for you?
Ms. Willingham: I am also working with the Drake Group, which is a national organization of faculty members who are trying to protect academic integrity in college sports. I have been working for the movement by lobbying, going to Washington DC many times, and pushing hard for reform in college sports. There are so many problems in college sports: low graduation rates, overall injuries, lack of insurance benefits, among others. Not only are we not teaching our young children to read, and these are often young black children, but as they grow older they are not part of our economy. This is a real social justice issue. Most of them will not go on to play professional sports. And without reform, they will not have the education they deserve. I am committed to continuing to work to change that.
Whistleblower Insider: So it sounds like you’ve only just begun in your quest to make education matter in college sports and beyond.
Ms. Willingham: Yes, that is definitely my plan.
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