The coverage of Yale quarterback Patrick Witt's Rhodes scholar candidacy stretched into hyperbole long before Witt decided to forego his Rhodes interview and play in a game last fall against Harvard. There are far more dicey decisions in this world than whether to apply for an elite academic honor or to play for an elite university in an historic football game, but it was nice to let Yale and a few fans have some fun basking in Witt's glow.
The tint of that light changed drastically Thursday, though, with a report by The New York Times that Witt's Rhodes candidacy was "suspended" when the Rhodes Trust was reportedly informed of sexual assault allegations against Witt. The flattering, soft white shade Witt had been cast under abruptly changed to an unsightly flourescent spotlight that pointed out all of Witt's blackheads and wrinkles.
The headlines made it seem like that, anyway. With the words "Patrick Witt," "Rhodes scholar" and "sexual assault" appearing together in a news story, it did not take long for many people to make their judgments. Based on the fine print, though, a guilty verdict was more than a little hasty.
The third paragraph of the Times' story stood out in figurative bold type.
"Witt's accuser has not gone to the police, nor filed what Yale considers a formal complaint. The New York Times has not spoken with her and does not know her name."
Good call, Newspaper of Record. None of those things are necessarily important when you're about to destroy a person's reputation. If Witt is a violent sexual predator, who needs all that messy "official records" stuff?
Witt might be guilty, but this is an irresponsible way to sully the reputation of a person who is entitled to a presumption of innocence.
The Times' report cites interviews with a "half-dozen people with knowledge of all or part of the story; they all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing matters that the institutions treat as confidential." That's fair, to a degree. The lack of a formal police complaint does not mean a crime didn't occur, and there may have been extenuating circumstances to explain why Witt's accuser never made an official report to authorities — although the Times never lays out any such circumstances. By his own account, Witt met with university officials about the accusations, the Times' reports, but no formal action was taken.
Last year's Jerry Sandusky episode underscored the seriousness of alleged sexual abuse, but more than any other type of crime, crimes of a sexual nature must be treated with firmness, yet caution. Whereas a victim's life can be destroyed by an assailant's abuse, a wrongly accused person can have his life destroyed by accusations that will linger throughout his professional and personal life.
It takes great courage to formally accuse an attacker of a sexual crime. The accuser may remain anonymous to the public, but he or she must give a statement to police and recount the horrible episode under oath for the court. In addition to all of that, the alleged assailant surely knows the identity of the accuser, even if the public doesn't.
But this? An unnamed person made an informal complaint, chose not to take part in an investigation and still it was splashed in the Times, solely because Witt is a public figure? There has to be more done before a news outlet chooses to run a story like that.
The Yale Daily News, the college's student newspaper, knew of the accusation back in November, but chose not to pursue the story, according to a Times follow-up story on Friday. The Daily News' reasoning — wait for it — was that running a story would have been irresponsible.
In an interview with the Times, Daily News editor in chief Max de La Bruyère "noted that the complaint process is confidential, and said the accuser apparently wanted to remain anonymous. 'We decided that we should honor that process,' he said, and also 'honor this girl's decision.'"
What was obvious to the hardworking kids at the student newspaper was apparently beyond the grasp of the folks at 620 Eighth Ave.
Witt's agent, Mark Magazu, responded swiftly and bluntly to the Times' report, providing email evidence to the Hartford Courant that Witt's Rhodes candidacy was never "suspended."
Then again, Magazu was just doing his job. A discerning reader doesn't need to be Witt's paid representative to catch some of the questionable aspects of the Times story. Witt's accuser — who has since been reported as his on-again, off-again girlfriend — chose to pursue an informal resolution, the Times story states. If Yale is like most colleges, such a process is supposed to be completely confidential. She may have gone to the university seeking some counseling and a simple resolution like having Witt moved to a different dormitory, but now she's the subject of a national news story.
The story jumps the shark, however, when describing two prior arrests of Witt.
One was a $90 fine for a Feb. 28, 2010, altercation over Witt being denied entry to a nightclub. It is what it is. The other came during his time at the University of Nebraska, where Witt spent two years before transferring the Yale.
"According to the University of Nebraska police, Witt entered a residence hall at 1:50 a.m. on Dec. 9, intoxicated, signed in using a false name and went upstairs without waiting for the escort required for a visitor," the Times' story reads. "The police said Witt also pushed and threatened a student official who tried to stop him, then ran away from a police officer."
In other words, Witt was drunk and tried to get into a dorm without his student I.D. In whatever world the Times' reporter inhabits, this might qualify as high mayhem. Where I went to college, this was a typical Friday night occurrence. Many of those students went on to become lawyers and business professionals who, believe it or not, have never sexually assaulted anyone, to my knowledge.
As one might imagine, Witt's charge of obstructing government operations was dismissed.
The subtle digs at Witt's morals, disguised as the journalistic practice of "background," only get more ludicrous. The Times points out that Witt's parents moved him from high school to high school in an attempt to put their son in the best athletic situation possible, which will elicit tsk-tsks from Times readers unaware that that sort of thing is commonplace in high school sports.
Witt did not deserve the sainthood granted to him last fall when he decided to play in a football game, but neither does he — or anyone — deserve such an incomplete kick to his character. If he is guilty, the last three days of news coverage will be the least of his worries. But if he is innocent?
If he is innocent. Did the Times even bother to consider that?