The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena publishes a lengthy article today alleging that Patrick Witt, the Yale quarterback who famously turned down a Rhodes Scholarship interview to play in the Yale-Harvard game, was at the same time facing a charge of “sexual assault.”
The article is called “At Yale, the Collapse of a Rhodes Scholar Candidacy,” and in my opinion it is a terrible piece of journalism.
Perez-Pena’s story is simply this: That Witt received an enormous amount of attention for withdrawing his Rhodes application because the interview for the Rhodes Scholarship conflicted with the time of the Yale-Harvard game. The attention was highly positive. (I myself made fun of David Gergen for this.) But in fact, Witt had been accused of sexual assault by a woman, someone told the Rhodes committee about the charge, and the committee had suspended Witt’s application and given Yale a week to decide whether it wanted to re-nominate him or not. Witt himself suspended his application before he knew what Yale’s decision would be.
Perez-Pena based his story on interviews with six people who reportedly have “knowledge of all or part of the story”—though Perez-Pena acknowledges that the Times has not spoken with Witt’s accuser and does not know her name. In the process, he smears Witt with unrelated accusations and strongly implies that Witt was a) probably guilty and b) at the very least, guilty of deceptive behavior.
The revelations about Witt’s Rhodes candidacy being compromised are just the latest to muddy the inspiring picture of a scholar-athlete torn between brain and brawn.
This is, in fact, not true. It’s a reference to the fact that WItt’s coach turned out to have lied about his own alleged status as a former Rhodes candidate—which was deeply unfortunate, but didn’t have anything to do with Witt and whether he is or isn’t an inspiring scholar-athlete. That’s what you call guilt by association, and it is at best a poorly written sentence, and at worst sleazy innuendo.
Here’s some more guilt by association:
Last year, Yale overhauled its systems for handling such [sexual harassment and assault] complaints and imposed a five-year ban on campus activities by a fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose members and pledges had engaged in highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment.
Witt was a member of that fraternity and lived in its off-campus house.
I have no love for DKE or sexual harassment, but the linking of these two sentences clearly implicates Witt in sexual harassment, whether he participated in any of DKE’s rather gross hazing activities or not.
Again: at best, a poorly written pair of sentences. It’s possible that it’s also a very purposefully crafted pair of sentences.
Perez-Pena dredges up the fact that Witt had two minor brushes with the law. Are they relevant? I suppose they add more detail to the picture of a widely praised young man—though Witt never seems to have made any claims for sainthood about himself and can’t be held responsible for the nonsense that people like David Gergen wrote about him. On the other hand, they do imply that Witt has a track record of misbehavior–yet Perez-Pena doesn’t have all of the details of what actually happened. So the implication may well be unfair.
(Someone is clearly out to get Witt, because you don’t just happen to find out that Witt paid a $90 ticket for getting into an argument with a bouncer at Toad’s Place. There’s no way that Perez-Pena wasn’t tipped off to this stuff—perhaps by the same person who tipped off the Rhodes Committee. It’s Times’ policy to try to characterize anonymous sources and their motives for leaking material and staying anonymous; Perez-Pena does not indicate why someone came to him with this story, but since he doesn’t know the name of the woman involved, it obviously wasn’t her.)
Perez-Pena reports that someone told the Rhodes Committee of an allegation against Witt; the Committee suspended his application and gave Yale the time to consider whether to re-nominate him—which sounds like an appropriate way to handle the situation, because surely the Rhodes Committee didn’t know all the details of the matter, since surely they were told of it by someone with an agenda—and that before Yale had informed Witt of its decision (or possibly made its decision), Witt himself withdrew his application. The media reported it in the context of a scholar-athlete giving up individual achievement for the sake of his team, when probably it wasn’t.
“I will be playing in the Yale-Harvard game this Saturday,” [WItt's statement] said. “I have withdrawn my application for the Rhodes scholarship.”
The quarterback did not tie the two sentences, but journalists did….
Which, clearly, irritates Perez-Pena. [Remember: Perez-Pena covers the media for the Times. Not athletics. Not crime. Not universities. The media.]
But who knows, really? Maybe Yale would have re-endorsed Witt, because, you know, maybe he didn’t do anything. Or maybe he would have dropped out anyway. I suspect he would have, because what football player would rather interview for the Rhodes than play in the biggest game of his life? Can you imagine Witt saying, “Nah, I’m gonna blow off The Game for my Rhodes interview?” Never happen. Particularly given the huge emphasis Witt’s family gave to boosting his football career, which Perez-Pena writes about iin a rather sneering, media-elite sort of way. (Perez-Pena writes that Witt’s family moved towns to get him into better football programs, which he suggests is extreme behavior but in parts of the country other than New York City might be considered good parenting.)
So here’s my complaint: Perez-Pena basically has Witt strung up, guilty not just of sexual assault but also of a massive media deceit. Witt’s certainly not guilty of the latter; he wasn’t the one seeking all the publicity, and he seems to have handled it pretty graciously, under what must have been very awkward circumstances. And while for understandable reasons he didn’t volunteer the accusation leveled against him, he looks like he went out of his way not to tell any lies, or make himself out to be the hero that others were portraying him as.
Yet what do we know of this allegation, really?
Many aspects of the situation remain unknown, including some details of the allegation against Witt; how he responded; how it was resolved; and whether Yale officials who handle Rhodes applications — including Richard C. Levin, the university’s president, who signed Witt’s endorsement letter — knew of the complaint.
Here are “some details” of the allegation:
In September, according to people with knowledge of the situation, a female student went to Yale’s Sexual Assault Harassment and Response and Education Center, claiming Witt had assaulted her in her dormitory room.
That’s it—that’s all we get. What does it mean? That Witt raped her? That he tried to kiss her? Something in-between?
(Clearly the implication is rape, because newspapers tend to use the term “sexual assault” instead of the term “rape,” because rape is considered stigmatizing. And also because “sexual assault” is broader and includes violence against women that doesn’t include rape—but still, most people who read “sexual assault” think “rape.”)
Or maybe the accusation was made up by someone who doesn’t like football, doesn’t like DKE, and was out to make a political statement by filing a claim against Yale’s star QB.
Or maybe it was a statement made up by someone incensed that Witt was sleeping with her best friend after having promised fealty to her.
What if the accuser had made other such allegations in the past that turned out to be false? (Something Perez-Pena couldn’t investigate—unlike his ability to investigate Witt’s past—because he doesn’t even know her name.)
The truth is, we just don’t know. Anything’s possible. So we shouldn’t assume the worst. But, inevitably, some of us will.
We do know that the woman filed a complaint with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.
Like many colleges and universities, Yale offers accusers a choice between making a formal complaint and an informal one. This student chose the informal process. In that process, an individual or a few members of the committee are charged with resolving the issue, without a full investigation or a finding of guilt or innocence. The most significant outcome might be an agreement to move the accused to a different dorm.
Wait a second—the most significant outcome might be an agreement to move the accuser to a different dorm?
Let’s say it’s true that Witt did something. We don’t know what, but….something happened.
What level of seriousness does that maximum punishment indicate? (Especially when, as Perez-Pena noted higher up in the article but does not correlate here, Witt already lived off-campus, so Yale couldn’t have imposed that maximum punishment.)
Perez-Pena goes on to hint at other dark suspicions:
University officials would not discuss other issues, like why Yale did not officially alert the Rhodes Trust of the complaint; what it did upon learning the candidacy had been suspended; and whether Yale ultimately decided not to endorse Witt before he withdrew on his own.
This is of course entirely appropriate; Yale officials shouldn’t discuss anything about the matter. No police charges were brought, and it involves students. There’s nothing underhanded about such silence; it’s the appropriate way to handle a disciplinary case that a reporter calls to inquire about. Maybe Yale didn’t inform the Rhodes Trust of the complaint because its committee members were trying to protect Yale’s star quarterback—but maybe they didn’t notify the Rhodes because they thought that Witt hadn’t done anything. We don’t know—and neither does Perez-Pena.
So what we do really know here? That an allegation by a woman we don’t know, whose details we don’t know, was made; that the Rhodes Committee, rather than ruling on the allegation, kicked it back to Yale; and that Patrick Witt decided to withdraw his application for reasons that may or may not have been related to the allegation.
But what does Perez-Pena strongly suggest? That Patrick Witt raped someone and then tried to cover it up while deftly portraying himself in the press as a heroic scholar-athlete.
Would I have run this story? I can see the argument for doing so: Certainly Witt’s decision was a big story and there’s a lot of background controversy—Yale’s sexual harassment problem and its former coach’s lying. (But these things are not Witt’s fault.)
And I can see the temptation; this story will get a lot of attention.
And yet….an anonymous accuser whose name the reporter doesn’t even know. An accusation we don’t know the details of. An unknown resolution.
It boils down to this: Essentially, the Times has allowed itself to be used to publicize an anonymous accusation of “sexual assault”—rape—and smear a young man’s character, reputation and future through implications that it can not verify and insinuations that it can not prove.
That, I think, is shameful. And as juicy as the story may be—no, I don’t think I would have run it. Not without knowing more facts and naming more names.