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In the NCAA, a Free Plane Ticket Is a Crime, But Sexual Assault Isn't

Patrick Witt lost his shot at a Rhodes but not a chance to play in the biggest game of his career despite a serious accusation against him.

The story of Patrick Witt has all the makings of a media firestorm: football, the Ivy League, a Rhodes scholarship, and—as of this week—sex. Witt, Yale’s starting quarterback, was simultaneously hailed as a hero and mocked as a moron last fall, when he chose to forfeit his Rhodes interview in favor of playing against Harvard. Now, it appears the choice might not have been his in the first place.

Turns out the Rhodes committee had suspended Witt’s candidacy after learning that a classmate had accused him of sexual assault, according to reporting in The New York Times. Yale was notified of the decision but took no visible disciplinary action against Witt. He played in “The Game,” got trounced by the Ivy champion Crimson, and is no longer on Yale’s campus but has not graduated.

Through a sports communications firm, Witt denied that the Rhodes Trust had suspended his candidacy or that he had sexually assaulted the woman, though he acknowledged the allegation. In other words: He admits that someone accused him of sexual assault, but insists it doesn’t matter because no one knew about it at the time. Yale, meanwhile, has remained silent on the matter, citing confidentiality requirements.

We have no way of knowing whether Witt assaulted the woman, and in that matter he deserves the same due process as anyone else. But because of the complicated calculus involved in a campus sexual assault allegation—balancing legal privacy requirements with the university's obligation to Witt and the alleged victim—everyone involved has been done a disservice. If administrators determined that Witt committed the crime he was accused of, they had an obligation to suspend him from football games and withdraw his Rhodes candidacy before he had the chance to stage the dog-and-pony show around his "big decision." If there was not enough evidence to discipline him, he is a casualty of a legal climate that values privacy over truth. In either case—or if, as is all too common on college campuses, the school failed to investigate at all—the case is contributing to the dangerous culture of secrecy surrounding the relationship between star college athletes and sexual assault.

The systematic failures in the Witt case are particularly striking when juxtaposed against the anecdotes in another recent series of Times articles about college sports: opinion columnist Joe Nocera’s stories about athletes suspended from games (or entire seasons) for “offenses” as trivial as repeating a grade after transferring into an American school from abroad or accepting a tutor's suggested edits on a paper. In one case, the athlete himself, Ryan Boatwright (a highly touted freshman at the University of Connecticut), did nothing wrong; his mother accepted money from a friend who is also an AAU basketball coach to visit colleges with her son, which constituted an “improper benefit.” So even though the player received no actual benefit, and even though the alleged crime occurred before he was a college player, the long arm of the NCAA kept Boatwright out of nine basketball games.

The hypocrisy of the NCAA is well-documented: As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2006, “an athlete can, theoretically, face immediate suspension for improperly accepting a cheeseburger from a booster, yet continue playing while charged with a felony.” Discipline for actual crimes are left up to individual universities, whose administrators have little incentive to punish star players when there are basketball or football games to win. And the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process does not apply in college athletics because the NCAA is a voluntary membership organization, meaning there’s no recourse for an athlete like Boatwright.

The NCAA's approach to athlete infractions is particularly troublesome in the case of sexual assault, where—unlike a murder or even petty theft—it’s easy to keep matters quiet under the guise of “handling it in-house.” Universities almost always address allegations of sexual assault through internal channels, so police and the public only become aware of the accusations if the victim insists. And because of the stigma women face when making such allegations—which can be even greater if the attacker is a high-profile athlete—that rarely happens.

That means universities seeking to protect sports stars can issue slaps on the wrist (say, a transfer to another dorm) or decline to investigate, citing a lack of evidence (there are rarely eyewitnesses to rapes). And thus, Patrick Witt lost his shot at a Rhodes but not a chance to play in the biggest game of his career despite a serious accusation against him, while Ryan Boatwright missed nine games because his mother accepted a gift of a plane ticket from a close friend. And while it’s hard to blame the University of Connecticut for not fighting back against the corrupt, all-powerful NCAA, it’s even harder to believe that at Yale—where the motto is “Lux et veritas”—neither light nor truth has been allowed to shine.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user SubtlePanda

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