Mary Willingham remembers the exact moment when she realized she had to go public. It was at the memorial service in the fall of 2012 for Bill Friday, the former president of the University of North Carolina. During his long career, Friday had championed the amateur ideal — the notion that college athletes needed also to be students, and that academics mattered as much as wins.
Willingham went to the university in Chapel Hill in 2003 as an academic adviser to the school’s athletes, primarily its football and basketball players. She was a reading specialist, a refugee from corporate America who had become a teacher in midlife. “Mary is one of those people who believed in the mythology, that you can do both athletics and academics,” says Richard Southall, who runs the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
But right from the start, she realized that there was a problem: Many of the athletes were coming into college unequipped to do college-level work. Around 2008, she recalls, after the N.C.A.A. changed its eligibility requirements — depending on their G.P.A.’s, athletes could now get in with lower S.A.T. scores — the situation became dramatically worse.