There are lots of jobs where you might expect to get death threats: a judge, a cop, a divorce lawyer. But never a million years did University of North Carolina learning specialist Mary Willingham expect that her research would inspire so much hate. But it has. What could be so incendiary? She released data showing that 10% of college football and basketball players read at a 3rd grade level. And 60% of them were only reading between a 4th and 8th grade level. As disheartening as these finding are, I don't see why people are really very surprised or angry.
Willingham spent years tutoring athletes at the school -- which has one of the best athletic programs in the country. So she clearly isn't pulling this research out of thin air. She knows first-hand that many of these gifted ball players can barely read. Not only that, she combed through eight years worth of test scores and found that 25% of them didn't even have the skills to take classes at a community college. "I mean, we may as well just go over to Glenwood Elementary up the street and just let all the 4th graders in here, the third-graders in here," she said.
It's shameful. But the shame does not rest with these athletes. They have done nothing wrong. The blame is on the coaches and the athletic departments that use these kids for their amazing athletic abilities but don't care about preparing them for the world beyond college sports. For that tiny, tiny percent that go on to the pros, they have nothing to worry about. But it's the hundreds of others that are left to fend for themselves after the glory days of college are over.
People are angry with Willingham for uncovering the truth, but she isn't the one causing the problem. The recruiters swoop down on high schools looking for the next big superstar. College sports are big money -- boosters, televised games, endorsements for the school. It's very important to the economy of the institution. But don't they have a responsibility to these student. Yes, they someone grease the wheels so they pass classes (even if just barely), but what good is a degree if you actually can't read? And this isn't just happening at UNC. It's a problem at many other Division 1 universities, according to CNN.
So how do schools fix this? Of course they should still recruit gifted athletes. But they need to arm them with tutors and learning specialist to help them at least pass minimum college-level standards. After all, they are there to learn something too. These athletes give so much to their schools, shouldn't the schools give them at least the chance of a future in return.
Why do you think this research has angered so many people?
Image via Hector Alejandro/Flickr