Illiterate College Athletes: Learning Specialist Speaks Out, Receives Backlash

Recently, CNN released a report on the reading level of college athletes.  Their investigation was prompted by the research of Mary Willingham, a learning specialist at UNC Chapel Hill, who had discovered that many of the school’s athletes could barely read, making it difficult, if not nearly impossible for them to succeed in their classes.  CNN conducted a study and received test score information from 21 different public universities.  Their statistics verified Willingham’s findings, as their report revealed that many college athletes only read at the eighth-grade level.

    Willingham first became aware of this trend when she encountered an illiterate athlete at UNC.  She then found more athletes who were struggling to pass their classes because they read at an elementary school level.  Her research showed that 60 percent of football and basketball players at UNC read between a fourth and an eighth-grade level, and eight to 10 percent read below a third-grade level.  Similarly, CNN’s investigation confirmed that between seven and 18 percent of paid college athletes in America read at an elementary school level.

    Many tutors and professors believe that some NCAA athletes are unable to give the necessary time and energy to their schoolwork in the midst of their rigorous athletic schedules.  They think that the lives of paid college athletes are too hectic and stressful and that if there was less pressure on them to succeed on the field, they could do better in the classroom.

     Billy Hawkins from the University of Georgia claimed that the NCAA is “pushing them [the athletes] through.”  Although the NCAA graduation rates may not show it, some believe that many of the athletes who read at a low level and still graduate are only managing to do so because they are being pushed through the system.  This is another issue, as tutors and academic advisors must decide how to best help student athletes and determine where the line is between teaching athletes how to read at a higher level and writing papers and providing test answers for them.

    Since CNN reported on her research, Willingham has been under fire.  UNC has claimed that they do not believe or support her findings, initially stating that she did not have access to data she needed for her research. They later recanted; Willingham was allowed access to this data. She has even recently received several death threats.  She has commented, however, that they will not deter her, as she feels that the public needs to know the truth about the reading level of college athletes.

    In addition to extensive tutoring, some colleges are seeking to help athletes succeed in the classroom through offering remedial classes.  Also, the Drake Group, an organization committed to academic integrity in college athletics, is advocating for a College Athlete Protection Act.  This amendment would keep freshman athletes on the bench if they were at a certain academic level below the average student at their college.

    Willingham remains worried for all of the athletes who read at a level unsuitable for a college student.  There is currently a discussion on whether athletes who are not prepared to handle the academics at a college should be admitted on the basis of their athletic abilities.



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