Keeping Score

Yale Quarterback’s Rhodes Choice: Can We Believe Any Feel-Good Sports Stories?

Patrick Witt supposedly turned down a Rhodes scholarship interview to play against Harvard. But new allegations may dim the media glow around him.

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Patrick Witt #11 of the Yale Bulldogs looks to pass as Josue Ortiz of the Harvard Crimson defends on November 20, 2010 at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard defeated Yale 28-21.

This was an airtight feel-good tale. A Yale quarterback decided to play in his final “Big Game” against Harvard in November, rather than attend his Rhodes Scholarship interview which was scheduled for the same day. Patrick Witt was a smart kid with a bright future who put his team above the possibility of winning one of the most prestigious honors in the world. Witt was a tonic to all the Penn State ugliness. His story was devoured by the national media, including TIME. “Chosen,” we wrote on our Milestones page in the November 28 issue of the magazine. “By Yale quarterback Patrick Witt: to play against rival Harvard and forgo his final interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, which is scheduled for the same day.”

But according to a New York Times investigation, Witt may have had no choice about this matter. And if this piece holds up, we can’t help but question if we can trust any of the good stories in sports. The Times found that at the time Witt announced his “decision,” the Rhodes Trust had removed Witt from consideration for the scholarship, because it learned through “unofficial channels” of a sexual assault accusation against Witt. According to the Times, the accusation was made in September. His accuser has not gone to the police, and Yale refused to confirm or deny to the Times that a formal complaint was filed due to confidentiality concerns.

(MORE: Are Colleges Doing Enough to Prevent Sexual Violence?)

This potential scandal is unfolding a few weeks after Witt’s coach at Yale, Tom Williams, resigned in December after the Times reported that Williams had lied about his own candidacy for a Rhodes scholarship when he was a player at Stanford in the early 1990s. He never applied. Williams’ resume also said he was a practice squad played for the San Francisco 49ers. That, apparently, wasn’t true either.

The sexual assault claim against Witt is bothersome, but we have no idea if it’s true. What is pretty clear, from reading the Times investigation, is that neither Witt nor Yale did anything to correct the potential misconception that Witt made a heroic decision to skip his interview in order to win the Big Game, which Yale lost, 45-7. According to the Times, Yale had the opportunity to re-endorse his candidacy after the Rhodes Trust told the school it was aware of the sexual assault allegation. Yale had not done so by the time the school released a press release on November 13, six days before the interview and the game. “Senior quarterback Patrick Witt, who has completed more passes for more yards than anyone ever at Yale, has withdrawn his application for the Rhodes Scholarship and will be in New Haven all day on Nov. 19 to make his third start against Harvard,” the release stated.

Journalists ran with this all week, assuming that Witt had given up his chance at the scholarship in order to play. Not that his candidacy could have been facing an imminent suspension. Not that we might have been duped.

In a lengthy statement released through a consulting firm, Atlas Strategies, Witt denies any connection between the claim and his withdrawal from the Rhodes scholarship. You can read the statement here.

Let’s hope Witt is telling the truth, because the sports world needs no more cynicism. But when something like this comes out, something that suggests a surefire uplifting tale was a ruse, what can you believe anymore? Tiger Woods’ character was put on a pedestal, not only by the media, but also by his own handlers. He turned out to be deeply flawed. And in a week in which the death of Joe Paterno reminded us that the most sainted coaches are far from perfect, we have this. We’ll keep believing that many people are doing many positive things in sports. But it’s becoming harder to do that every day.

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