(CNN) -- 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.
A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.
This is not an exhaustive survey of all universities with major sports programs; CNN chose a sampling of public universities where open records laws apply. We sought data from a total of 37 institutions, of which 21 schools responded. The others denied our request for entrance exam or aptitude test scores, some saying the information did not exist and others citing privacy rules. Some simply did not provide it in time.
Academic vs. athletic scandal
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.
"So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here," she told CNN.
The issue was highlighted at UNC two years ago with the exposure of a scandal where students, many of them athletes, were given grades for classes they didn't attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper. Last month, a North Carolina grand jury indicted a professor at the center of the scandal on fraud charges. He's accused of being paid $12,000 for a class he didn't teach.
When Willingham worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, she admits she took part in cheating, signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA rules violations when in fact she did. But the NCAA, the college sports organizing body, never interviewed her. Instead, it found no rules had been broken at Chapel Hill.
UNC now says 120 reforms put in place ensure there are no academic transgressions.
But Willingham said fake classes were just a symptom of the bigger problem of enrolling good athletes who didn't have the reading skills to succeed at college.
"Isn't it all cheating if I'm sitting at a table with a kid who can't read or write at college level and pulling a paper out of them? Is this really legitimate? No," Willingham told CNN. "I wouldn't do that today with a college student; I only did it with athletics, because it's necessary."
NCAA sports are big business, with millions of dollars at stake for winning programs.
In 2012, the University of Louisville earned a profit of $26.9 million from its men's basketball program, according to figures that schools have to file with the Department of Education and were analyzed by CNNMoney. That's about 60% more than the $16.9 million profit at the University of North Carolina, whose men's hoops team had the second-largest profit.
Willingham, now a graduation adviser with access to student files, said she believes there are still athletes at UNC who can't do the coursework.
UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told CNN the school admits only students it believes can succeed.
"I think our students have an exceptional experience in the classroom as well as on the fields of competition," he said.
Anecdotally, NCAA officials admit there are probably stories that are troubling, but they also say the vast majority of student-athletes compete at a high level in the classroom.
"Are there students coming to college underprepared? Sure. They are not just student-athletes," said Kevin Lennon, vice president of academic and membership affairs at the NCAA.
But he said the NCAA sees it as the responsibility of universities to decide what level athlete should be admitted to their schools.
"Once the school admits them, the school should do everything it can to make sure the student succeeds," he said. "(Universities) don't want a national standard that says who they can recruit and admit. They want those decisions with the president, provost and athletic directors. That is the critical piece of all of this."
The NCAA admits that almost 30 athletes in sports that make revenue for schools were accepted in 2012 with very low scores -- below 700 on the SAT composite, where the national average is 1000. That's a small percentage of about 5,700 revenue-sport athletes.
However, the NCAA did not share raw data. The U.S. Department of Education does not track statistics on the topic, nor do the conferences.
In fact, CNN only found one person in addition to Willingham who has ever collected data on the topic. University of Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney found that about 10% of revenue-sport athletes there were reading below a fourth-grade level.
So, after consulting with several academic experts, CNN filed public records requests and concluded that what Willingham found at UNC and Gurney found at Oklahoma is also happening elsewhere.
The data CNN collected is based on the SAT and ACT entrance exam scores of athletes playing the revenue sports: football and basketball.
In some cases, where that information was not available, CNN then asked for aptitude test scores administered after the athlete was accepted by the university.
Based on data from those requests and dozens of interviews, a CNN investigation revealed that most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes.
According to those academic experts, the threshold for being college-literate is a score of 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing test. On the ACT, that threshold is 16.
Many student-athletes scored in the 200s and 300s on the SAT critical reading test -- a threshold that experts told us was an elementary reading level and too low for college classes. The lowest score possible on that part of the SAT is 200, and the national average is 500.
On the ACT, we found some students scoring in the single digits, when the highest possible score is 36 and the national average is 20. In most cases, the team average ACT reading score was in the high teens.
"It is in many ways immoral for the university to even admit that student," said Dr. Richard M. Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute and a professor at the University of South Carolina.
Scores aren't the whole story
Officials at the universities from which CNN collected data all said they recognized the low scores -- and gave several possible reasons for them:
-- Some athletes don't aim for high scores when taking entrance exams, looking only to score high enough to become NCAA eligible.
-- Many times, low scores are indicators of learning disabilities.
-- Entrance exams are just one factor taken into consideration when deciding whether to accept a student-athlete.
The officials also said they believe excellent tutoring and extra attention from academic support allows these athletes to excel off the field as well as on, and many cited the high graduation rates of athletes.
Robert Stacey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, said the conversation should be about the achievement gap -- the difference between the academic levels of the athletes and their nonathlete peers at the same university.
"We know how to close the achievement gap. It's just very expensive," he said. "A student who scored a 380 on his or her (SAT) critical reading is going to face tremendous challenges, won't be able to compete the first year with a student who has a 650 or 700. But with intensive tutoring -- and I'm not talking about cheating, I'm talking about tutoring -- by the time they get to be juniors, they're competing. But it's a very expensive process. It takes intensive work."
But some of the universities from which CNN sought data didn't even have remedial classes for student-athletes to attend. Athletes, many times, take the field before they even get to a classroom. And even if, over time, they can be brought up to speed, how are they getting through the first few semesters?
We found one plausible explanation at Iowa State -- where the achievement gap between students and student-athletes was fairly low.
There, any athlete who is specially admitted -- they would not have gotten in on academics alone -- is mandated to start school in the summer term, where they are given remediation.
Tom Hill, senior vice president for student affairs, said it's done partly because the school recognizes that it is simply too much to ask athletes to jump into a tough schedule of practice and games, plus keep up classwork, especially if they are already academically behind.
"We'll provide them with support and help to begin the process to shore up deficiencies," Hill said. "It's not just throwing them in there."
Hill also said that Iowa State -- a land-grant university that takes many students from small, rural towns across the state -- doesn't separate academic support for athletes from the rest of the student population. Anyone can get the same tutoring as an athlete does.
Hill, who has a long background as an administrator in college athletics, said he is well aware of the practices of pushing athletes through at more competitive schools. And he is blunt about what he thinks of it.
"Those people who do that should be arrested," Hill said. "We should make it against the law. I know it happens. I've spent time in athletics."
Former and current academic advisers, tutors and professors say it's nearly impossible to jump from an elementary to a college reading level while juggling a hectic schedule as an NCAA athlete. They say the NCAA graduation rates are flawed because they don't reflect when a student is being helped too much by academic support.
"They're pushing them through," said Billy Hawkins, an associate professor and athlete mentor at the University of Georgia.
"They're graduating them. UGA is graduating No. 2 in the SEC, so they're able to graduate athletes, but have they learned anything? Are they productive citizens now? That's a thing I worry about. To get a degree is one thing, to be functional with that degree is totally different."
Hawkins, who says in his 25 years at various universities he's witnessed some student-athletes fail to meet college reading standards, added: "It's too much for students reading below a college level. It's basically a farce."
Gurney, who looked into the situation at the University of Oklahoma, put it bluntly: "College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry. ... The NCAA continually wants to ignore this fact, but they are admitting students who cannot read.
"College textbooks are written at the ninth-grade level, so we are putting these elite athletes into classes where they can't understand the textbooks. Imagine yourself sitting in a class where nothing makes sense."
Risks and rewards
All of the university representatives we talked to deny that their tutors do too much work for student-athletes who come in at such low reading levels.
"I lose sleep about a lot of things; I don't lose sleep about writing tutors. We are extremely strict," said Brian Davis, associate athletics director for football student services at the University of Texas, acknowledging there were, of course, challenges.
"You have to minimize the risk as much as you can. If you're signing 20 (recruits), you can't have 30 to 50% extremely at risk. It puts way too much pressure on the system. That's when you get into more nefarious issues, and I'm very proud of how we've addressed the risk factors," Davis said.
There are anecdotes of student athletes who do succeed. Christine Simatacolos, the associate athletics director for student life at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, talks of a student whose low scores fell below the college literacy threshold but who graduated from Louisiana State University and is now in medical school.
But far more anecdotes of failure were recounted to CNN during our monthlong research.
Kadence Otto, who once taught at Florida State University, recalled one situation where an academic support tutor would call every week to check up on a starting player.
"I would say, 'He's not doing well. He can't read and write.' And (the tutor) said, 'Well, we'll see what we can do,'" Otto said. That stopped with a career-ending injury. "He's worth nothing to the team, and I never once heard back from the academic support adviser. He never showed up to class again, either."
Otto, who now teaches at Western Carolina University, says that experience had a big impact.
"That's one of the reasons I got into working in corruption in college sports. Sending messages that maybe they don't really care about the athletes as people," she said. And as for claims by institutions that they can bring poor readers up to speed with tutoring, she said: "Honestly, it feels to me it's like trying to turn a Little League Baseball player into a pro."
Periodically since the 1980s, stories have surfaced of athletes who could not read.
-- Former basketball player Kevin Ross told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" about his struggles at Creighton University in the 1980s.
-- In 1989, football player Dexter Manley told Congress that he got through college and into the pros without ever learning to read.
-- Dasmine Cathey's compelling story of struggle at the University of Memphis was recounted by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012.
And as far back as the 1980s, faculty and staff have spoken up about illiterate athletes who are pushed through with passing grades to keep up their eligibility to play, while their reading was little addressed.
Linda Bensel-Meyers, who worked for Tennessee until 2003, said a university-hired psychologist would diagnose learning disabilities in athletes and put them in a program without the graduation requirements set for other students.
"Many of the records I looked at revealed that these athletes came to us essentially illiterate and still left the school functionally illiterate," Bensel-Meyers told CNN.
When contacted by CNN, Tennessee did not answer questions.
Then there was Brenda Monk. In 2009, the former Florida State University learning specialist told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that she was forced to resign from the university as a cheating scandal surfaced in which the NCAA said that tutors were writing papers for athletes and giving them answers to test scores.
Monk denied the allegation that she did too much work for athletes, but she said she saw some of them reading at second- and third-grade levels.
The NCAA levied sanctions against Florida State in 2009, including vacating wins and reduced scholarships.
Florida State did not provide CNN with records in response to our request.
In December, the Drake Group, which pushes for academic integrity in collegiate sports, organized a lobbying trip to Washington to push for an amendment to the College Education Act of 1965. Director Allen Sack said he wants to see a College Athlete Protection Act -- legislation that would keep athletes on the bench as freshmen if they are academically more than one standard deviation lower than the average student admitted to the university.
"That's unconscionable, to bring in a young athlete who does not fit in the general profile of the student body and have them play football on national television before they've entered the classroom for the first time in the fall," Sack said.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania introduced legislation in the House last year that calls for a complete overhaul of the NCAA. When he talked to CNN, he cited the lack of consistency in the way recent NCAA investigations into various improprieties were handled at Auburn, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Ohio State and Penn State.
"I think (the NCAA) needs to be looked at. I think they need to be reined in," Dent said.
Mary Willingham went on the trip to Washington and said she came back feeling that they could make some progress in bringing change.
Others aren't so confident that a beast as big as collegiate athletics can be tamed.
-- CNN's Brian Rokus contributed to this report.