By Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - A reading specialist at the University of North Carolina has filed a brief in support of a lawsuit by former college athletes that challenges the NCAA’s ban on compensating athletes.

The brief, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, is dated Jan. 10 and was filed in federal court in Oakland, Calif.

Reading specialist Mary Willingham said in her filing that the NCAA’s ban on paying players “does nothing to safeguard the educational experience of the athletes.”

She adds that compensating the athletes “poses no threat to the educational mission of the schools.”

Willingham - who hasn’t returned calls or emails from the AP - told CNN that her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels. She said she worked with one men’s basketball player early in her 10-year tenure who couldn’t read or write.

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is the lead plaintiff among 16 former college athletes and some current college football players in the long-running legal battle with the NCAA.

The plaintiffs are demanding the NCAA find a way to give players a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia and video games sales, and other revenue.

Willingham argues in the brief that the players she worked with “did not have access to a real education because the academic experience for athletes is separate and unequal.”

She said players could not take part in study abroad programs, internships or research projects because they interfere with practice, tournaments, summer school or spring football, and “were not given the freedom to explore courses or fields of study they found intriguing.

“In my experience, as a result of their treatment by the schools and the NCAA, Division I basketball and football players are first and foremost athletes - not students,” she wrote.

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