When all other voices were quiet amidst an academic scandal that would one day rock the world of college athletics, Mary Willingham decided to stand up.
The University of North Carolina academic adviser chose to speak out. In doing so, she invited a wave of criticism and scorn from a Tarheel fan base that is as devoted as they come. She received accolades as well for her courage in questioning a system that seemed beyond questioning for so long.
Now she is suing the college, after resigning from the university this past spring.
The civil lawsuit questions the way North Carolina removed her from her position, according to a report from the Associated Press.
It marks an important moment in college sport, answering the simple question: will universities be allowed to take punitive action against employees who reveal wrongdoing and rule-breaking? And if not, how far can an employee go with his or her allegations before going too far?
UNC has been beset by allegations of nebulous academic standards for its athletes for as long as two decades. However, the school was more recently the subject of investigations after the discovery of a phony Afro-American Studies Department for basketball and football players and the allegations by Willingham in a January CNN report that many athletes were accepted to the ultra-competitive school despite being barely able to read.
Willingham's suit claims that she was demoted due to her willingness to speak up about the low reading levels, which caused more bad publicity for the school.
For compensation, Willingham is claiming $10,000 in damages and wants her job back. She also wants a guarantee that UNC cannot fire or relieve her of her duty - she was forced to discontinue her research on student-athlete academics in the spring - because of her whistleblowing.
The timing of the suit coincides with the NCAA's announcement Monday that it is coming back to the UNC campus and re-opening its 2011 case looking into academic malfeasance.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who arrived on Oct. 14, 2011, was hit by the academic scandal pretty much as soon as he arrived.
"The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received a verbal notice of inquiry from the NCAA that it will reopen its 2011 examination of academic irregularities," Cunningham said in a school press release. "The NCAA has determined that additional people with information and others who were previously uncooperative might now be willing to speak with the enforcement staff."
The NCAA may believe that more people will be willing to talk after repeated reports of scandal from Willingham and from players, such as former UNC guard Rashad McCants.
McCants told ESPN's Outside the Lines in June that he would not have been academically eligible during the 2004-05 season in which he was the team's second-leading scorer and won a national title. He rarely went to class and remained on the court because he took some of the alleged false classes.
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