Mary Willingham and the ‘Haters’
Let’s take a moment to look at a common slang term: Hater. For those who might not be up to date on the latest vernacular, a “hater” is someone who brings down another person in an attempt to stall their success. Now, while this is the intended use of the term, in my experience it’s generally used by people who get caught doing something wrong, and then label anyone who attempts to call them out or correct them as a “hater.”
The reason I give this slang tutorial is because of the reaction I’ve seen from the community to the recent CNN article I’m sure you’ve all read by now: UNC reading specialist Mary Willingham claims that several athletes she was charged with tutoring were severely academically deficient, going so far as to claim that some were illiterate. Now, I don’t want to discuss the semantics of her claims; why did she wait so long to go public (she first went public in a News & Observer article in 2012), were the students really as bad as she claimed, etc. Chances are things aren’t quite as bad as she claimed - she was, after all, setting out to prove a point. My main concern is the public outcry – not one calling for academic reform or examining the admissions process, but instead an outcry against Mary the Hater.
As much as we may try to defend the school we love, most people are willing to admit that we know athletes, particularly in the big money sports of football and men’s basketball, get plenty of special treatment. Of course there are the obvious perks, like how they are admitted to a school they might never have gotten into without their athletic prowess, the fact that their education, room and board are all paid for, etc. And there are also the more subtle perks, such as private tutors who follow them around the country, meal stipends while on road trips, and receiving $500 worth of merchandise for participating in a bowl game (which somehow does not qualify as “payment” according to the NCAA). While the ethics of these perks is a discussion that will likely never be resolved, it is an undeniable fact that college athletes receive certain benefits not given so freely to the rest of the student body.
Of course, the justification for all of these benefits is that a student-athlete has a far more difficult task than someone only at the school to receive an education. In addition to a full class load, they have 20 hours a week of practice, not to mention games, travel, and everything else built into the “athlete” part of the bargain. However, the argument for these benefits requires that a student-athlete be a student as well as an athlete. Otherwise they’re little more than a professional athlete being paid in dorm rooms, cafeteria food, and travel expenses. Again, this is a discussion that could go on for days – the justification of balancing academics and athletics. But generally speaking, I believe that it is reasonable to expect student-athletes to contribute comparably in the classroom to complement their contributions on the court or the field.
The issue with the current situation is that Mary Willingham simply pointed out that this accepted bargain of balancing academics with athletics has been violated. While it may be unreasonable to expect every star athlete to be a Rhodes Scholar, one should be safe in assuming that a college athlete should be capable of at least maintaining a reasonable academic standard – a minimum that Willingham claims was violated by the severe lack of academic abilities of several athletes at the University of North Carolina.
However, in light of these claims, the overwhelming reaction has been one of accusation directed not at the University, but instead directed at Willingham for simply pointing out wrongdoings. As I stated before, there may be questions about the way in which she made these claims, but what Mary Willingham revealed should inspire us to examine the academic integrity of the school we claim to love, not inspire hate over the concern of losing a few wins on the basketball court. Placing athletic success over academic integrity is a far greater threat to the University than losing someone with a smooth jump shot.
While there are seemingly countless discussions to be had over the ethics of major college athletics, none of which have easy answers, the information given by Mary Willingham does not fall into the category of ethical ambiguity. She noticed clear violations of the expectations we place on student-athletes, and for bringing that to light she is receiving hate mail and death threats. What she did is not a matter of attacking the basketball team, but simply pointing out a broken rule, a missed standard. She is not a hero nor a villain. To blame Mary Willingham for compromising the integrity of the University is like blaming a smoke detector for burning your house down. While her comments may have created an unpleasant situation, she did not create the problem.
So take this anger, disgust, and passion, and direct it towards the true culprits – a school that allowed ill-prepared individuals to infiltrate an institution of higher learning. I highly doubt the school intentionally admitted someone who is incapable of even reading or writing, but in looking at the trend as a whole, rather than only the most severe instances, we can see an opportunity for positive change and restored integrity.
So stay mad – but not at Mary Willingham. In this case, she’s the one person who got it right.