The Whistleblower Project

A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project

Introduction A Call to Action Whistleblower Basics Voices Best Practices 25 moments that changed history

An Attempt To Make The College Athletic System Better For Athletes

Mary Willingham talks about why she spoke out about the treatment of college athletes at North Carolina and why — despite death threats from college sports enthusiasts — she would do it again.

By Lynn Walsh



A Call to Action: Whistleblower Protection Legislation
If passed, these laws would help improve protection for whistleblowers.

Whistleblower Basics
The Law and Whistleblowing
Deciphering the laws dealing with whistleblowing is complicated, but we hope this will help.

Whistleblowers and Retaliation
Those who expose wrongdoing can face job loss, lawsuits or even prison.

Leaking vs. Whistleblowing
Can you spot the difference between a leaker and a whistleblower? It may be trickier than you think.

Nine Organizations That Work With and Help Whistleblowers

Best Practices for Journalists
Source Protection and Anonymity for Whistleblowers
In political journalism, there’s a debate over allowing sources to talk to you off the record, in order to keep the access pipeline flowing. Anonymity and the ethics of it can also be complicated in situations beyond scoring political points.

Whistleblowers and Reporters: Trust
Here are some best practices to follow when working with a whistleblower on a story.

Technology Can Help Whistleblowers Communicate Anonymously
The ways that reporters and whistleblowers communicate is evolving. The introduction of secure communications has become necessary as journalists try to protect their sources, all the while trying to guarantee the information is secure.

Anonymity: Not Always the Possible, Nor Always the Best, Strategy
Many whistleblowers want to disclose information about trouble in their workplaces while maintaining their anonymity. However, the vast majority of whistleblowers — more than 95 percent — try to solve their problems internally first.

When Working with Whistleblowers, Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply
Government Accountability Project’s “Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists” details best practices for working with whistleblowers.

Kathryn Foxhall: Good whistleblowing simply needs free speech
During the last 25 years it’s become an accepted norm for government, business, nonprofits and other organizations to prohibit employees to ever communicate with journalists without notifying and being overseen by the authorities, often public information officers. The restrictions are intense, highly effective censorship. The Society of Professional Journalists has made opposing them a priority.

Jesselyn Radack: Challenges in Defending National Security Whistleblowers
War crimes, mass surveillance, torture: some of the biggest stories in modern history relied on whistleblowers in national security and intelligence agencies. They came forward at great risk to expose the truth.

Nick Schwellenbach: The Modern Politics of American Whistleblowing
Insiders Valued More Highly in U.S. Society, But Still Face Perils.

25 times whistleblowers changed history

Jack Spadaro headed the National Mine Safety and Health Academy when the Martin County Coal Slurry Spill occurred in October 2000, dumping 300 million gallons of coal slurry into 100 miles of streams in Kentucky and West Virginia. The disaster polluted waterways and the drinking supply, killed all life forms in the streams for 100 miles and affected 27,000 people. Get the full details of Jack's story, along with 24 other times whistleblowers changed history.

Mary Willingham: An Attempt To Make The College Athletic System Better For Athletes
Mary Willingham talks about why she spoke out about the treatment of college athletes at North Carolina and why — despite death threats from college sports enthusiasts — she would do it again.

Megan Wood: Reporting with Purpose
Megan Wood talks about why she looked into San Diego Christian College’s missing $20 million in expenses and how whistleblowers make a difference in their communities.

Richard Bowen: Blowing the Whistle on Defective Mortgages
While evaluating $90 billion of mortgages Citigroup was buying from Countrywide and other lenders, former Citigroup vice president Richard Bowen tried to warn company leaders and board members about the rise in defective mortgages. In 2010 he testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Here, in Bowen’s words, is what happened next.

Craig Watts: Typical American Farmer Risks Career to Reveal Inhumane Conditions at Chicken Farms
Craig Watts was a typical American farmer with three kids, two dogs, and a barn full of chickens. That all changed though when he decided to show the public the conditions chickens, sold by Perdue farms, were being raised in.

Meet the Project Team

Mary Willingham is the former athletics literacy counselor at the University of North Carolina. She spoke out in 2011, first to the News & Observer in Raleigh and later the national media, about a system of "paper classes" at the university that allowed students, including athletes, to enroll in fake classes. The practice went on for nearly 20 years and is considered the longest-running academic fraud in NCAA history.

UNC denied and attempted to discredit Willingham’s reveal of the university’s system of fake classes. However, an investigator who worked at the U.S. Justice Department verified her claims and she sued the university for retaliation. The school eventually paid her $335,000 in a settlement. However, she decided to resign from her post in 2014 due to a “hostile work environment.”

Willingham is now the Regional Director of Literacy at KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas and author of Cheated, a book that talks about the scandal, the treatment of college athletes and the future of college sports.

She is also a whistleblower. In a phone conversation with the Society of Professional Journalists, she shares how being a whistleblower impacted her career and why she chose to come forward and expose a system she says was unfair to student athletes.

Did you ever think you would be a whistleblower?

I don't even think, at the time, I knew the term whistleblower. It was not even anything I paid attention to. I just thought I was going to say what was wrong with the system and everyone was going to agree; and it would get fixed and I was going to be asked to be part of the solution.

Being called a whistleblower blindsided me and caught me off guard.

When did you realize, “I’m a whistleblower”?

The spring of 2013 is when the whistleblower title stuck. That was when I started hearing from national media. I got calls from CNN, ESPN and HBO. It was a bit of a shock. I do not think I realized the full extent of what was about to come, in terms of the hate and death threats. I was not saying things that people did not already know and it was not earth-shattering.

Talk about the hate and death threats.

It started after I went public, the fall of 2012, and then went on and became much worse in 2014. Once the story went national, death threats and hate reached a whole other level.

In my own community I felt I would not be protected. I did have a lot of people across the country stand up for me and support me, but locally it was uncomfortable to go to the grocery store, to go for a run.

People, for the most part men and big sports fanatics — not necessarily (UNC) alumni though — these crazy fans, would make calls threatening me, send letters. Someone even came to the university to look for me once. Social media was the biggest problem. You would see the comments out there all the time, just terrible things. At one point they started talking about one of my kids and it got personal.

In my own community I felt I would not be protected. I did have a lot of people across the country stand up for me and support me, but locally it was uncomfortable to go to the grocery store, to go for a run. One time someone screamed at me while I was running. Luckily nothing bad ever happened.

What was the impact on your professional career?

The discrediting campaign is real. People took my master’s thesis and ran it through a system and then said I plagiarized. I did not plagiarize. The university said my research was wrong. Things like that were so painful. It really is uncomfortable. Who wants to be discredited?

Finding another job was hard. A community college in North Carolina hired me as an adjunct but I was told I would never be hired full time because of my past. So, I had to leave North Carolina. I loved that place. I miss that place so much.

But, I found a great job in Arkansas and it’s an area of need. So, I can follow what I am passionate about and want to do. Not such a bad turnaround for a whistleblower.

What motivated you to speak out?

For a long time at my house, with my kids at my dinner table, we would talk about the inequality of the system. Athletes were not getting what was promised to them. A lot of them were reading at the same grade level as my kids at the time, (1st grade, 4th grade and 6th grade). They were not being given what was fair, they were not getting paid.

My kids and I talked about it all the time. My parents were activists in Chicago, so I grew up discussing racial inequalities. I wanted to bring those types of discussions to my kids, so we talked a lot about what I was seeing at UNC.

I know when kids can read and when kids can’t. I just wanted it to be fixed and I really did think the university would do the right thing. I talked to the dean about reading remediation and they said no. I would talk to anyone who would listen about it and people seemed to understand and agree that the system wasn’t right. So, I did not think speaking out publicly was going to be so big; that there would be so much drama behind it.

I still do not understand, really, why the people who love college sports hated me so much for what I had to say. I wasn’t trying to take down the Tarheels or UNC. I was just saying we could do better. Don’t shoot the messenger, you know. I am just the one that said, ‘This is what is happening.’

I did not want anyone to be hurt by it. I wanted the opposite. I wanted it to be fixed. Whistleblowers want things to be fixed. I wish people would have let me be part of that change. I want to see bigger change and I think whistleblowers do, too; we want the system to be corrected.

Do you regret speaking out?

Someone had to say it out loud and I think it shifted the conversation in college athletics. I think it was helpful and I think anytime any one of us can make a wrong a right, I think we should be responsible to do that, whatever the cost is.

It is a horrible black mark on the university but someday, when college sports is dismantled and reconfigured in a new way, UNC will be looked at as a marker that helped create change.

People told me I shouldn’t have gone public; that there were mistakes I was making as a whistleblower. Sure, there were things I shouldn’t have done but I have zero regret. Hindsight is hindsight, but I do not think that I could have done it better. I think I did the best I could have done. It shifted the conversation and I would do it again.

Any advice for other whistleblowers?

Think about family support. Having a good support network is important. People say you will never know who your friends really are until you blow the whistle, and I lost a lot of friends. There are always more people to meet.

Try to control the story as much as possible; maybe consider publishing your own story first, on a blog, or something. Really think about all the things that people might pull out of your closet and try to get ahead of that a bit. Get off social media.

Don’t ever give up. Things turn out OK if you never give up. I tried to tell people for a while, but that did not work. In the end the truth will always be the truth, so you do not have to say anything else.

You said you weren’t expecting to be called a whistleblower, but now that you are, how do you feel about that title?

I have no problem with being called a whistleblower. I am proud of the work I did, about coming forward. My kids really supported me and I have no qualms about it. Once you’re a whistleblower and you own it, there are more ways to be involved and keep pushing that agenda.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News Project. Follow her on Twitter or send her an email to collaborate on a possible project.

Next: Megan Wood: Reporting with Purpose