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Student-Athletes Human Rights Project looks to advocates for athletes at UNC

A locally-based human rights group has been striving to ease the tension after UNC’s recent athletic scandal, but some University officials are not as receptive to third-party involvement as the group had hoped.

The Student-Athletes Human Rights Project formed after UNC’s athletic scandal began in the summer of 2010 and has since grown to advocate for student-athletes across the nation, including Oklahoma State University and Rutgers University.

But the group’s efforts were directed back to Chapel Hill after former learning specialist Mary Willingham released controversial findings in January that examined the literacy levels of football and men’s basketball players.

National coordinator for the organization, Emmett Gill, said SAHRP began making calls to the University as soon as the news broke.

“At the end of the day, there’s no one out there advocating for student-athletes and that’s the void we’re trying to fill,” he said.

Algerian Hart, a member of SAHRP and professor of kinesiology at Western Illinois University, said the organization is still at the investigation stage of its involvement with the recent controversy between Willingham and UNC.

“I’m not asking the question, ‘How did it happen?’” he said. “Right now it’s really about who’s at fault.”

Hart said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean’s response to the findings came a little too late.

“The fact that this conversation comes about and it deals with academic integrity and the provost isn’t immediately involved is problematic,” he said.

Gill said SAHRP scheduled two meetings with Dean following the release of Willingham’s study, but both meetings were cancelled.

“The provost appreciated Dr. Gill’s contacting him, and at the provost’s discretion a University representative has reached out to Dr. Gill to learn more about (SAHRP),” said UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon.

Gill said SAHRP offered to review Willingham’s data as an unbiased third party, but UNC “respectfully declined.”

“We’ve tried to support Ms. Willingham as much as we can without the data,” he said. “But we don’t need data to understand that there’s a challenge when it comes to educating at-risk student-athletes.”

The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, who is a member of SAHRP and is married to former UNC football offensive coordinator John Shoop, said she feels there is a need to reshape the debate surrounding college athletics.

“There’s a very well-established frame of conversation that pits athletics and academics against each other,” she said, “which disallows a deeper conversation about the system and how it works.”

Senior track and field athlete Devon Carter said he didn’t think the organization was needed with regards to advocacy for student-athletes.

“As a student body, we should all be one,” he said. “There shouldn’t be separation to the point where there are people designated to advocate for us.”

Carter said he thought the organization’s involvement was a good start toward cleaning up the damage left after Willingham’s findings were publicized.

Hart said SAHRP’s first step to doing so should be to start a dialogue.

“We want to be the conduit to help foster that conversation,” he said.

“Now it’s about ‘What are we doing to remedy this?’”

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