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Discrediting whistle-blower hurts UNC

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As allegations about no-show classes, poor reading test results and calculated efforts to keep athletes academically eligible to play ball continue to pile up on the steps of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the response from UNC leaders has ranged from disappointing to astonishing.

The latest counter: Shoot the messenger. UNC officials now are trying to discredit the research compiled by Mary Willingham, who has been a key whistle-blower in the academic scandal.

Willingham has compiled data that she says shows many UNC-Chapel Hill football players and basketball players struggle to read at even an eighth-grade level. She draws her conclusions from years of research on athletes who needed extensive academic help while she served as a specialist in the UNC tutoring program.

UNC leaders, including new Chancellor Carol Folt and men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, say Willingham’s findings don’t match what the university has seen in athletes’ records. The university has suspended her research on the grounds that it could invade the privacy of students.

One can’t help but wonder how much of UNC’s response is designed to better protect the NCAA in the face of a class action lawsuit filed by athletes, including former UNC football player Michael McAdoo. McAdoo has charged that UNC failed to meet its scholarship obligations to give him a meaningful education.

But litigation aside, the university’s reaction has to be disappointing to students, faculty and alumni who in the past have been justifiably proud of the value of a UNC-Chapel Hill degree. Trying to argue that academic issues don’t exist within the system doesn’t bode well for future athletes, either.

Even in a Division I NCAA program with a long history of success on the basketball court and football field, only a relative handful of athletes jump successfully to the professional ranks.

The others chase their sports dreams with fewer chances of making the grade in the NFL or the NBA, but with an opportunity to earn a first-rate college education.

As research by Willingham and investigations by newspaper reporters and others have shown, not all athletes are cut out to meet the rigorous demands to earn a UNC degree.

UNC-Chapel Hill leaders would do the state a huge favor by stepping up now to address the challenges brought by McAdoo and others.

Choosing instead to discredit someone who has worked firsthand with the students in question offers little hope that the university will substantively change to help the athletes whose talents do so much to enrich the university in terms of prestige and television dollars.