Early in her career as a learning specialist, Mary Willingham was in her office when a basketball player at the University of North Carolina walked in looking for help with his classwork.
He couldn’t read or write.
“And I kind of panicked. What do you do with that?” she said, recalling the meeting.
Willingham’s job was to help athletes who weren’t quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top public universities.
But she was shocked that one couldn’t read. And then she found he was not an anomaly.
Soon, she’d meet a student-athlete who couldn’t read multisyllabic words. She had to teach him to sound out Wis-con-sin, as kids do in elementary school.
And then another came with this request: “If I could teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him,” Willingham said.
Student-athletes who can’t read well, but play in the money-making collegiate sports of football and basketball, are not a new phenomenon, and they certainly aren’t found only at UNC-Chapel Hill.