ZELINSKY: Truth in the Witt assault story

In part, Patrick Witt ’12 holds the power to clear his own name. So too, the woman who filed an informal complaint of sexual assault against him can help clarify some controversial issues while maintaining her privacy. She and Witt should illuminate some of these issues as only they can.

Currently, the Rhodes Trust refuses to comment on the status of Witt’s scholarship application as it stood before The Game. The Trust cites confidentiality concerns as the reason for its stance.

Without the Rhodes Trust’s account of events, the public is left with a journalistic version of the classic “he said, she said” scenario. The New York Times claims Witt lied about his interview; Witt denies the accusation, contending that his Rhodes application was never in serious jeopardy.

The discrepancy is easily resolved: Either Witt or the Times got the story wrong. The Rhodes Trust can resolve the dispute. And Witt can empower the organization to do so, by waiving his rights to confidentiality.

Witt should ask the Rhodes Trust to settle the matter about his application status, to benefit both himself and Yale. The longer he holds onto his privacy, the more his inaction raises suspicions. After all, if he is telling the truth, he loses nothing and gains much by turning to the Trust for confirmation of his version of events. Witt injected the organization into the debate by providing an alternative story about the scholarship; it’s time he let the Rhodes Trust participate fully in the discussion. (Unless he is lying, that is, in which case his current position neatly obfuscates reality).

In perpetuating this scandal, Witt also generates controversy for a football program that hardly needs more bad press. The team already lost its coach to a separate national humiliation involving lies and a past Rhodes interview. (Though how much Tom Williams had to do with Witt’s scandal remains to be seen.) And last year, Witt’s DKE fraternity brothers cast a pall on the gridiron and men in general when they forever attached the words “boorish” and “chanting” in Yale’s lexicon. The allegations against Witt reinforce a narrative of deceit and depravity that will further damage football’s weakened reputation on our campus.

The team took Witt in as a transfer student and made him the starting quarterback — his fellow teammates deserve much from him in return. Witt should authorize the Rhodes Trust to tell us who is correct, Witt or the Times, for his sake and for his team’s.

Now for the second actor in this story: The woman who filed the informal sexual assault complaint at the heart of this controversy and who Witt calls his on-again off-again girlfriend. She should waive some of her own privacy rights so Yale or another third party can release a names-redacted version of her charges against Witt. Such a document could preserve her anonymity while also clarifying the nature and severity of her claims.

Sexual assault has become a catch-all term that ranges from two drunken students making a mistake to violent rape. When the Times prints this nebulous term, many people assume the worst — they naturally think of extreme violence. And much of the public also assumes the man’s guilt, forcing the accused to exonerate himself. As much as strict confidentiality is intended to protect the anonymity of accusers and potential victims, it is also designed to protect those accused from undergoing character assassination in the popular press.

When the complainant in this case filed an informal complaint against Witt, she initiated a process that intentionally avoided determining his guilt or innocence. Witt contends that he wanted a formal hearing to clear his name, but Yale refused him that option because the female student never pressed formal charges. Now that the story is out, the public has judged him guilty of a crime that could fall anywhere from the nonexistent to the minor to the atrocious.

Witt’s accuser should cooperate with Yale or another third party to provide the context for her informal claim. This could be done in a manner that preserves her anonymity but also gives Witt a fair shot at explaining himself. I must admit this would be an emotionally difficult decision for the woman, one that I cannot even fathom. Even choosing to file the informal claim clearly required an immense fortitude. And Witt may be guilty of violent rape — in that case, perhaps he is getting his due. But if he is not, Witt’s accuser dooms him in the media battle, after having already stripped him of his formal due process at Yale.

Witt may be guilty of a variety of offenses — I have no information on the veracity of the Times’ accusation or those of the woman who filed the complaint. But I do know both Witt and the complainant can make this process less painful for our community.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.


  • anotherY10

    Guys, how many times do we have to teach you this? Ensuring you have sex with someone who is drunk is often just as invasive, or even more, as ‘forcible rape’.1) It entails violation of trust – “this guy, who I thought was nice, I might even have consensually had a relationship with in the past, turns out to just me as an object, or worse, is actively reminding me that even in the every day, in my own dorm room, he has male power over me and is happy to use it.” 2) If a Quarterback climbs on top of the average girl, trust me, he doesn’t need to resort to much ‘violence’ for her to know she quite simply can’t fight back. Just because a girl lay back and tried to wait til it was over, doesn’t mean she gave consent – you shouldn’t need scratch marks to prove rape to a jury. The fact that you can’t see this is almost as horrifying as the idea that the woman involved should start to provide more details, which will inevitably identify her. You want her, and Witt, to ‘process less painful for our community’ – has it not occurred to you that the pain each is suffering, particularly whichever of the two is less culpable, is going to be more intense, and in need of more support, than your ‘community’ of curious Yalies? And this story shouldn’t really be about whether, and to what extend Witt really did assault someone – which is fairly improvable, at least for Libel standards – it’s about whether Yale lied in concocting a heroic story. That’s a case for Yale to answer, not the accuser.

    • morse_14

      All due respect, putting the onus of rape entirely on the male gender is ridiculous. Rhetoric like “male power” only serves to make generally liberal men who favor equality among the sexes less sympathetic to the victim’s cause. Rape can, in fact, be perpetrated by females too! Men aren’t some sort of bogeyman — it’s not OK to generalize like that!

      And, regarding your first sentence, if both parties are drunk, neither can consent to the actions that they’re undertaking. Regretting it the next morning is not equal to rape, if neither party resisted the act as it was taking place.

      Obviously, I don’t know any of the details of this particular case, so I can’t comment with respect to what may or may not have happened. I only wish to point out the fact that for many liberal men, the rhetoric and tone of your comment is downright scary, and it makes us incredibly wary of supporting your brand of feminism.

      • SY10

        But the question for rape purposes isn’t really whether the people involved are “drunk” or not, it’s whether they are drunk to the point that they can no longer consent. This doesn’t mean you’re committing rape every time you hook up with a girl who’s had a few drinks. It means that if I had tried to have sex with the girl who wandered into my room and climbed into my bed, because she was so drunk she’d didn’t notice that it wasn’t her boyfriend’s room (true story) I would have been committing rape, even if I’d had a few drinks, whether or not she said no. (And you’d have trouble finding a man drunk enough to be unable to consent who was really capable of penetrative sex, so the two people both raping each other idea is just silly). The notion that rape that takes advantage of the victim’s mental state, rather than using violence against her (or him) is less bad or not a crime is really problematic, and you should be able to recognize that whether you’re a “liberal,” someone who supports those evil man-hating feminists (or whatever you think of anotherY10’s ideology) or even a conservative.

    • Frashizzle

      You’re right anotherY10, guilty until proven innocent; that’s the American Way.

      • domlawton

        Who, exactly, is anotherY10 judging to be guilty? Because going by their comment, it’s certainly not Witt (in fact, they were careful NOT to prejudge guilt or innocence: “has it not occurred to you that the pain each is suffering, particularly whichever of the two is less culpable…”, etc.)

        Besides, innocent until proven guilty is a JURIDICAL principle, and yes, it’s one that all institutional bodies of judgment (courts, disciplinary committees, etc.) should follow strictly. That does not, however, mean that individuals in a non-official capacity should also do so. And considering that — especially on a campus — popular opinion seems to ALWAYS trend towards victim-blaming and defending the accused (“she should have known she was leading him on”, “she’s just bitter because she regrets it”, “think of how this will damage his reputation”, etc.), in a way that makes it difficult for any accusation of sexual assault to be taken seriously at all, I think it’s an actively good thing if the average student is more inclined to give the accused less credit.

  • anon

    The alleged victim doesn’t owe anyone anything.

    • BrightSide2013

      I agree. I think the author of this article is also wrong to assume she can explain what happened anonymously. There are many people who already know who she is. She shouldn’t be pressured into going public with the details.

    • cpick

      Absolutely right.

  • MC13

    It’s not a “story” with “actors”, it’s the very real, very upsetting possibility that a student was violated by someone the rest of campus had decided to elevate as a hero. The disgusting and misguided preoccupation with reputations (of Yale, of the football team, of Witt) betrayed in this essay further dismisses the serious physical and psychological damage such a narrative inflicts on Witt’s (alleged) victim. I just hope that whoever she is, she has a strong support system to get her through insensitive contributions to the discussion like yours.

    • River_Tam

      The word “actor” used to describe an autonomous agent predates the word “actor” used to describe “one who performs” by at least a few centuries. The former is straight-up Latin, the latter is of Shakespearean-era etymology.

  • River_Tam

    These things are confidential for a reason. Y’all are nosy.

    • cpick

      Don’t blame them. They’re AMERICANS. We somehow think we’re entitled to the complete skinny on everything!

  • Gracchus

    “Sexual assault has become a catch-all term that ranges from two drunken students making a mistake to violent rape.” Where, pray tell, did you get this spectrum? From Yale’s regulations? Personal/professional experience dealing with such issues? Research about spoken usage of the term? This casual, entirely unsupported minimization of sexual assault as a drunken “mistake” is perhaps the most unconscionable part of this reckless article. It perpetuates the myth of sexual miscommunication/regret without a single shred of evidence or thought (see http://tinyurl.com/7bsc3mp).

    • NewCampus

      Actually, Yale does describe sexual assault as including two drunk people have sex. Freshmen counselors tell their freshmen that if a guy has sex with a girl and either is at all intoxicated, it is sexual assault.

      • GeoJoe

        That’s a misconception. It would be wrong to tell freshmen that it’s always sexual assault to have sex with someone who has been drinking. The Yale College Undergraduate Regulations clearly state that it is possible to obtain consent even if alcohol has been consumed. The ability to give consent only vanishes when someone is drunk to the extent that they are incapacitated.

      • SY10

        You’re right that freshman orientation generally does a poor job of explaining this, but I challenge you to find me an actual case of rape prosecution in which the victim having been “at all intoxicated” (rather than, say, blackout drunk) was used as evidence for lack of consent.

    • yayasisterhood

      “Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention.”


  • kdaysandtou

    Yeah this column is pretty bad. Whoever complained has no obligation to explain herself and make a formal complaint. Such a suggestion reveals that you don’t understand what she intended with an “informal complaint” and have no experience with sexual assault and the array of emotions that victims deal with. And she should do so “for the sake of the community”? That’s not her responsibility, and nobody here cares about football anyway.

    I’m still waiting for an explanation from Vivian Yee, however, who felt that she was entitled to use a young woman’s traumatic experience and/or a young man’s reputation as a way to get herself a by-line at the New York Times. I’m appalled and can’t really understand how she thought that could be in anybody’s interest but her own.

    • morse_14

      All that this “informal complaint” has resulted in is, as far as most people are concerned, the publicizing of what are no more than rumors. All that the informal complaint mechanism allows people to stigmatize others without really having to prove anything in any sort of meaningful way. If a rape actually did occur, the university should be obligated to initiate an investigation and punish the accuser. The police should do so as well.

      If he is guilty, let an investigation prove it. If not, let the accuser be punished. But to stigmatize anyone without definitive proof of guilt is ridiculous, and contradicts the tenet that all are innocent until proven guilty.

  • cpick

    I hope journalism is Nathaniel’s hobby, not planned vocation.

  • Yale12

    It’s not a freaking play put on for you, Mr. Zelinsky. It’s a rape accusation. The alleged victim, who is probably extraordinarily traumatized and whose anonymity has already been severely compromised, doesn’t owe it to you to clarify the plot for your entertainment.

  • The Anti-Yale

    It is NOT a rape accusation. It is a “sexual assault” accusation. Keep the facts (few though they are) straight.

  • harvardsucks

    Am I the only one who thinks this is actually a pretty thoughtful article?

    As far as I can tell, most everyone else is sensationalizing while Nathaniel is taking a logical stance that people should take seriously even if they don’t fully agree with every statement he makes.

    • Yale12

      What is logical about demanding that a possible rape victim release the details of the attack to the public? Or calling her an “actor” in a “story”? This is horrifyingly offensive.

      • River_Tam

        Taking umbrage at calling her an “actor” requires a lack of basic knowledge as to what the word “actor” means.

        It would be like you thinking that my previous sentence was referring to the Hogwarts High Inquisitor, rather than taking offense to a word.

  • EliFBfan

    The only thing more ridiculous than this vapid commentary are the idiotic comments posted to it. The New York Times printed an article accusing Patrick Witt of all manner of sins based on nothing but anonymous sources. Not one contention can be verified as fact. Apparently, everyone is entitled to hide behind their anonymity except Patrick, who in reality, has been put in a situation where he can’t defend himself. What the Times is passing off as reporting is nothing but rumor mongering, for which they are renowned, which leads you people to all kind of wild speculation, absent any basis in fact whatsoever. You people need to go back to your reality TV and Nathaniel Zelinsky needs to come up with a logical premise before he allows himself to write.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “What the Times is passing off as reporting is nothing but rumor mongering, for which they are renowned”

    The exact opposite is true, which makes this lapse all the more peculiar.


  • EliFBfan

    Kathleen Parker wrote an opinion piece in Friday’s Washington Post on this specific issue. Anyone interested in fairness should read it.

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