Originally posted on The Other Paper  |  Last updated 1/10/14
A North Carolina University learning specialist has received death threats and hateful messages after she exposed shockingly low academic levels among athletes at the university.After eight years of studying test scores, Mary Willingham found that between eight and ten per cent of the university’s football and basketball players had a reading level of a third grader. The academic adviser also found that a majority of athletes on the revenue-earning sports teams had a reading level between fourth and eighth grade."We may as well go over to the elementary school up the street and let the fourth-graders and third-graders in here,’ she told CNN.Willingham focused on 183 "revenue" athletes at UNC between 2004 and 2012, and found that between eight and 10 per cent read below fourth grade level and 60 per cent between fourth and eighth grade level. She also discovered that up to 25 per cent of basketball and football athletes did not have the reading level to study at a community college, let alone at the university.In the two days which have passed since her findings were published as part of a wider investigation by CNN, Willingham has received four death threats and over 30 "alarming messages.""Not people who disagree, people who put in the subject or body (of the e-mail) straight-up hate speech," she said.Football and basketball are the two sports that generate the most revenue for the university with men's basketball team alone making a $16.9million profit in 2012.Willingham, who also worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, told CNN of one example of a basketball player at the UNC who was completely illiterate, and another who could not read multi-syllabic words, despite UNC at Chapel Hill being one of the top public universities in the U.S.Despite admitting earlier in the investigation that officials had seen the alarming figures, UNC issued a statement Wednesday night saying it did not believe Willingham's account of a basketball player who could not read or write and could not comment on the data used by her and CNN as university officials had not seen it.However, Willingham's research into revenue sports students was based on screenings ordered and paid for by the university itself, and she has shared her findings with senior officials on at least two occasions.A further investigation by CNN using data from 21 top U.S. universities, including Ohio State University, Texas  A&M University and Georgia University, found that most institutions had between seven and 18 per cent of revenue sports athletes scoring below elementary school reading level.A formal incident report hasn't been made yet, but UNC police said: "We are looking into it and making effort to reach out and investigate the nature of the threats.""It's really OK," Willingham said of the intimidating responses, "because I'm telling the truth."Maybe the real story here might not be the threats, but how sports rules over academics."I've been getting more and more nice notes from high school teachers and literacy specialists across the country saying 'Thank you,'" she added.
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