Mary Willingham Goes After 2005 NCAA Title Team

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Whistleblower extraordinaire Mary Willingham went honey badger on Monday with the following tweet:

At least now we can dispense with all pretext of her actions being "for the kids" as she has gone all in with Team Jay Smith and the Quest for Banners.

On the surface, this seems like a bombshell. According to Willingham, the starting five players on the 2005 NCAA title team, plus one additional player, took 69 of the so-called "paper classes", classes which were identified as only requiring a final paper and may or may not have had regular class meetings. But like many of Willingham's claims, this one also lacks a certain context and raises as many questions as it answers.

The majors of the 2005 team have been examined before, as in this article from the Indianapolis Star four years ago, which notes that all seven of the players from that team that had graduated at that time had majored in Afro-American Studies (but that part of the article was incorrect, as Byron Sanders earned his degree in Information and Library Science). That article noted that Sean May had started as a double major in Communications and AFAM, but later focused only on AFAM because it offered more "independent electives, independent study" and allowed him to earn his degree faster. So this is not exactly unexplored territory Willingham is wandering into here.

Likewise, since there was a high concentration of AFAM majors on the '05 team and UNC identified over 200 aberrant course sections in the AFAM department over the course of 15 years, it would follow that players on that team would take a disproportionate number of AFAM courses, including the aberrant ones. But to say that six players took 69 "paper classes" seems a bit extreme. Let's take a look at the details:

The five starters on the 2005 team were seniors Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel, and juniors Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May. The two top reserves were senior Melvin Scott and freshman Marvin Williams. Four of the five starters, plus Scott, were listed in the 2004-05 UNC media guide as AFAM majors (Felton was listed as a communications major). According to UNC General Alumni Association records, Jawad Williams, Manuel, Scott, and May earned their degrees in AFAM. Felton, McCants, and Marvin Williams have not graduated, although it has been reported Marvin has returned to Chapel Hill every summer since 2005 to work on his degree.

The AFAM major requires 30 hours of coursework, or 10 classes. UNC also requires at least 9 hours (3 classes) in a foreign language, and many AFAM majors have reported taking Swahili to fulfill this requirement. So that means a player majoring in AFAM could have taken as many as 13 classes that might possibly have fallen into the aberrant category. Using Willingham's math, six players times 13 possible AFAM/Swahili classes is 78 possible classes. But we know Felton was a communications major, so he likely did not take all 13 classes in those areas. Even allowing that Felton took half as many classes in AFAM as his teammates actually majoring in the field, it is logical to assume that those six players took 70-72 classes in AFAM/Swahili. Willingham claims those players took 69 aberrant classes.

In other words, she is claiming that essentially every class those six players took was a "paper class". This is highly unlikely, especially given that even the most damning reviews of the academic fraud have not claimed 95+% of AFAM classes were aberrant. Moreover, given that Felton, McCants, and Marvin Williams have not graduated (though we cannot know whether the "plus one" is Marvin or Melvin Scott), it is not a stretch to doubt whether those six players even took 69 AFAM-type classes, much less 69 aberrant ones.

On the other hand, anyone who has followed the Willingham saga knows she is prone to hyperbole, plus she has been known to cherry-pick her subgroups to buttress her point. The bigger issue is why she has chosen to cross the Rubicon and call out a specific, identifiable group of players. Willingham initially cited privacy concerns in her refusal to release her research data to UNC officials, although she did mention that a basketball player (who would have likely been on the 2005 team) was essentially illiterate, and she also mentioned the aggregate grades of a subgroup of football players on this year's team. But this tweet throws privacy out the window, as the starting five players in 2005 are easily identifiable. Up until now, Willingham has only flirted with violations of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, but this time she has called six UNC players out, which could be construed as a FERPA violation. Why all of the sudden has she chosen to go YOLO?

Perhaps because it is a tactically genius move. Or, as current UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel described it, "brilliantly unethical." First, it is essentially an unanswerable claim. In a bit of delicious irony, the FERPA blanket in which UNC has wrapped itself specifically prohibits the school from responding to the charges because it involves protected student records. Second, it minimizes Willingham's exposure. Yes, the release of personally identifiable student data is technically a FERPA violation, but really, what are the consequences? There are no real set penalties for FERPA violations by an individual, as most FERPA compliance measures are aimed at institutions,not individuals. UNC may sanction Willingham for her actions, but since she has granted most exalted whistleblower status by the media, any penalties or termination of employment would likely make her a martyr to her cause despite her violation of the law. In other words, the great irony here is that ultimately UNC could get in trouble for Willingham revealing information designed to hurt UNC.

The only way to really combat her claim is to have one or more of the implicated players give UNC permission to release his transcript; conversely one or more of them could possibly file some sort of legal action against her. Either of those avenues would open up a transcript to the world, which UNC has fought tooth-and-nail. Remember it was Michael McAdoo's lawsuit against UNC that revealed the plagiarism in his paper which in turn was the linchpin that brought much of this mess coming down. I doubt UNC wants to go down that road again. Besides, the Dan Kanes (and WuffLoon board monkeys) of the world have been dying to get their hands on a transcript they can cross-reference with the aberrant classes revealed by the Martin Report.

At the end of the day, it is this kind of thing that keeps Willingham relevant and at the forefront of the scandal, even if the claim of 69 fraudulent classes is as overblown as the Rosa Parks paper kerfuffle. The #narrative has legs and continues to grow, as late Tuesday it was revealed a congressman wants to know why the NCAA did not come down harder on UNC. Meanwhile Willingham keeps plugging away even as further doubt is cast on her initial claims. It will be interesting to follow the fallout from this latest chapter of As the Scandal Turns.

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