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UNC counselor receives death threats after report on athlete literacy

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Mary Willingham appeared in the documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports." Mary Willingham appeared in the documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports."

A University of North Carolina academic counselor told WNCN she has received death threats and hate mail since CNN aired a report Tuesday in which she revealed several student athletes at the university read at an elementary level.

Mary Willingham said there are athletes at UNC who are reading at a third- and fourth-grade level. She said there is no way for them to succeed in a college classroom and that the only place they can succeed is on the football field.

On Wednesday, a day after the report aired, Willingham, who works in UNC's Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, told WNCN that she's received several death threats and hate mail.

Read UNC's response to the CNN report

"I've definitely had positive feedback," Willingham said. "However we have a lot of people who feel it necessary to send hate mail and some death threats.

"I think it's because the entertainment of college sports and athletics is so important to us. But I think it's completely inappropriate for people to act this way."

Willingham said the threats won't stop her from continuing her research and speaking out on the literacy of student athletes.

"I can still see the faces of these young men," Willingham said in telephone interview with WNCN's Steve Sbraccia. "I can't stop, and [I] plan on becoming part of the national conversation.

"A few of the people who've emailed me say I should do something about it instead of just speaking out about it, and I plan on working hard to bring literacy programs to communities across the state."

With the permission of the university, she combed through eight years' worth of test scores, and found that up to 25 percent of athletes in revenue-generating sports don't have the skills to take classes at a community college, let alone a competitive university like UNC.

Looking at 183 football and basketball players between 2004 and 2012, Willingham found that 8 percent were reading below a fourth-grade level and 60 percent were between a fourth- and eighth-grade reading level.

"They're leaving here, our profit-sport athletes, without an education. They're significantly behind the level of reading and writing that's required," Willingham told CNN.

Willingham said she began looking into the reading levels because she was concerned that athletes were not receiving the education they were promised by attending a top-tier institution like UNC.

"I am speaking out because the young men I worked with here deserved better than what we offered them," Willingham told WNCN. "The scholarship agreement is often fraudulent. We promise an education in exchange for talent, and that's not what we are providing to many of these young people at our school and at schools across the country."

In a response to the reported aired by CNN, UNC spokesperson Karen Moon said the University can not comment on the claims because they have not seen the data.

"We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction. Our students have earned their place at Carolina and we respect what they bring to the University both academically and athletically," Moon said.

Willingham said she believes the athletes are being "exploited" by the universities because "commercialism has taken over our college sports system."

"These young men -- and I'm taking about basketball and football, which I call the two profit sports -- do not get any of the benefit of what so many people are making so much money from," Willingham said, "coaches, assistant coaches and on up the line to athletic administrators and on up to the NCAA."

Former UNC System President Bill Friday, who died in 2012, championed access to literacy programs across the state and Willingham said "we need to do the right thing" in his honor.

"Also at the national level -- working to make sure the House of Representatives and our senators hear that we need to change the way the NCAA operates. Just like we changed the amateur status in the Olympics," she said.

"The NCAA cartel needs to be dismantled and come up with a better way to run our college sports programs."

In reviewing data from 21 Division I universities -- including top-25 ranked football schools like Texas A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Clemson -- CNN found that most schools had between 7 and 18 percent of football and basketball players scoring so low on the reading or writing portion of their exams that experts said they would only be reading at an elementary level.

The NCAA told CNN that in 2012, 30 revenue-sport athletes were made eligible despite very low SAT or ACT scores -- a number it said is a small percentage of the 5,700 basketball and football players admitted that year.

Texas said some athletes don't try very hard, aiming only to become NCAA eligible. Washington pointed out that low scores can indicate learning disabilities. And Louisville said entrance exams are just one factor considered when admitting a student athlete.

Some advisors said it's not unheard of for a student with poor reading skills to be brought up to the level where they can succeed in college, but many also point out that this requires a big investment. These students aren't just hitting the books, trying to catch up. They essentially have full-time jobs on the field and they travel.



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