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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Updated: February 1, 9:32 AM ET
Patrick Witt story deserves clarification

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Not to be overly melodramatic, but I thought it was a great story of self-sacrifice.

Sure, I also believed Yale quarterback Patrick Witt was a little crazy. Who passes up an opportunity to interview for a Rhodes scholarship -- bestowed upon outstanding students who often go on to become dignitaries and even presidents -- to play in a football game?

But there was something about Witt's decision that was endearing. It was his final game against rival Harvard and it was hard not to inflate Witt's character because he chose his passion for football and team loyalty over individual glory.

Witt
Patrick Witt played the past three seasons at Yale after transferring from Nebraska.

But a few days ago, The New York Times broke a story that has not only shattered the altruistic perception of Witt's decision to play against Harvard, but also raised some serious questions about whether it's possible to be fair to both the accused and their accusers.

To merely say the details of this situation are murky is an injustice. It can be assumed everything isn't as it seems, but discernment is even more impossible amid so much blatant secrecy.

If you take the Times story at face value, the decision to play against Harvard wasn't Witt's call. The newspaper reported that the Rhodes Trust learned in early November that an informal sexual assault complaint had been filed against Witt in September. The committee supposedly said that the only way he'd be considered for a Rhodes scholarship is was if Yale re-endorsed his candidacy.

Witt, through his agent, denied that he withdrew his Rhodes application because of the complaint. So did Yale purposely allow the media to misrepresent the situation so that Witt could look like a hero?

Or was Witt unfairly blamed for the deception?

The two entities that could clear this up -- Rhodes and Yale -- aren't talking but are hiding behind confidentiality and an unwillingness to comment.

But as we grapple for the truth, the larger impact this could have is being overlooked.

Despite the scant details, Witt's reputation has been irreparably damaged. He's preparing for the NFL draft but I can't imagine even anonymously sourced suggestions of sexual misconduct and flat-out lying to make himself look valiant will help him. Talent is the ultimate deciding factor with the most troubled players, and Witt is regarded as a fringe prospect at best.

Real due process in this case was destroyed by whomever shared the story to the Rhodes Trust and The New York Times. The breach of confidentiality and a flawed system could also create a lack of sympathy and understanding for current and future sexual assault victims.

Per university policy, an informal accusation was supposed to guarantee the identity of Witt and his accuser were protected. Certainly some people will interpret this policy as a dangerous tool for those who want to be vindictive.

I'm not saying that's the case here, but it's hard to be at ease knowing that Yale never took a written statement from the accused, and the school denied Witt's request to investigate the matter formally because it said it didn't see a need to.

"While the committee can refer an informal complaint into a formal process if more substantial disciplinary action may be warranted, it did not do so in Patrick's case," Mark Magazu, president and CEO of Atlas Strategies, said in a statement of Witt's side of the story. "At that time, all parties, including the university and Patrick, considered the matter ended."

Yale is mistaken if it thinks a process like this actually helps victims come forward. If anything, it's deepening a code of silence around a serious issue. Victims have an avenue to complain, but with no required investigation, some sexual assaults will surely go unpunished.

I understand why the Rhodes Trust would be concerned about Witt's candidacy. I'm sure the committee thought in terms of the worst-case scenario -- which would be giving an award to someone who later turned out to be a criminal.

But with so much confusion between the reported timeline and Witt's version, either the Rhodes Trust or Yale is obligated to clear up whether Witt's scholarship campaign ended at his request or theirs.

Because, as of now, a lot of people are thinking the worst of Witt. Who knows if the truth will ever be sorted out, or if we'll ever learn whether this is a story of self-sacrifice, or one of self destruction.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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