JANES: Light and truth and athletics

“Lux et Veritas.” Light and truth. Hard enough to find one at a time these days in college sports. But the combination? Nearly impossible.

It’s hard consistently to find integrity in college sports. Blame money. Blame the lure of professional sports. No matter how you look at it, the old adage “A lie by omission is still a lie” is proving truer and deadlier than ever. Penn State, Ohio State, USC and countless others were all brought down because people knew the truth and failed to bring it to light.

Ironically enough, this is especially valid for Yale athletics in light of accusations leveled against Patrick Witt.

Let’s step back: I am not and would never suggest that the Witt issue is on a scale even close to what happened at Penn State or elsewhere. And I should take this opportunity to assure you that I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Witt saga by any means. No one, perhaps except Witt himself, is an expert. But this uncertainty is precisely why the comparison to Penn State and others is apt. The root of frustration here and there is exactly the same: no one knows anything.

In an age when it’s easier than ever to know all the things that might be true, it’s harder than ever to know what is. It is absolutely unacceptable to quote six anonymous sources in a biased attack, warranted or not, of someone’s character (and I’m surprised the New York Times did). But quoting reliable sources on record in these cases is also impossible, simply because there are none willing to give their names.

Even in the rare case that official statements are explicit and elucidating, no one believes they are the whole truth. We all know that the authorities making these statements on behalf of college athletes have agendas to protect their own — to uphold reputations and guard against legal ramifications.

And who can blame them? Loyalty is admirable, and reputation is crucial. Alleged perpetrators refrain from comment. Their legal representation is cautiously vague. University policies keep the media at arm’s length in order to protect students. Teammates and friends close ranks around their own. The system for dealing with problems in college athletics puts a premium on silence.

But that silence is becoming problematic. At Yale, in particular, even the justified firing of a coach or the tensions borne of a disappointing loss on the field are taboo subjects. No one wants to put a chink in the armor of the Athletic Department.

I’m speaking as a Yale varsity athlete and one of Yale Athletics’ biggest fans. I never like to see a negative report about something that happens in our community, whether in on-field results or off-field missteps. But if a less than positive report is warranted, avoiding the truth or euphemizing about it is, quite simply, an insult to the intelligence of players and fans.

In the Twitter era, media and fans are more equipped than ever to track down the information they want, and when the media doesn’t get information from sources that are authorized, official or reliable, readers try to find it elsewhere. A lack of transparency can be dangerous, as well as belittling to a community looking for facts. And in addition to the occasional scathing, unconfirmed report, media speculation breeds frustration and distrust. Let’s be honest: in the court of public opinion, nothing sparks the imagination more than the phrase “no comment.”

We may understand why the accused in cases such as Witt’s don’t say anything, and within the current climate, his reluctance to provide clarity and the administration’s strict adherence to policy is expected. But if everyone did what was expected of them, why are that polarizing New York Times story, Witt’s official response and the truth still topics of heated conversation?

The reason is that doing what’s expected of you simply isn’t enough in college sports anymore, and everyone senses it. Passing the buck, declining comment or conducting investigations doesn’t appease a curious community now empowered to hunt down information as never before.

Nor should it.

With the current prominence of college athletics, figures such as coaches and star quarterbacks are representatives of their schools. College communities have a right to know when these representatives make mistakes, just as they would with a corrupt professor or other prominent campus figure. In this day and age, student-athletes are visible representatives of their schools in ways most students might not experience. As they earn the support of their school communities, athletes are also accountable to them and must answer for their actions on and off the field, Whatever happened, Witt and others knew there was a problem before the Rhodes decision and before the Harvard-Yale game, and should have clarified all the factors going into his decision. I would never suggest that any information be revealed to compromise the alleged victim’s anonymity, but that a disciplinary issue was under investigation could have been good to know. Similarly, when former head football coach Tom Williams’s supposed Rhodes candidacy was brought up in conjunction with Witt’s, he should have corrected misconceptions immediately.

At Yale, issues of on-field accountability are rarely problematic. And off-the-field issues here rarely garner the major attention that they do at higher profile sports schools, if only because of a lack of national interest and resulting lack of media attention. But regardless of whether incidents gain exposure or not, I’ve always thought it takes more strength and character to admit when you’re wrong than to try to cover up or minimize the mistake. That’s the attitude college athletes and their administrators, here and elsewhere, must start adopting in this hyper-critical media age.

Our ancient motto says it all: it is by shedding light on the truth that we best preserve the integrity of our athletic department and university. Creating a climate of transparency makes controversies such as the one surrounding Witt easier to resolve, but it requires commitment from all members of the community to both telling the truth and respecting those situations where anonymity must be honored. Even the most active and knowledgeable of athletic administrators (and Tom Beckett fits that description) can’t know everything going on with coaches and players in a college atmosphere. Nor do coaches always have the full picture of what their players are doing. Players may face the gravest challenge of all — knowing when to blow the whistle on teammates or even coaches when things aren’t right. No good teammate would “rat out” another, but players and coaches must understand when action is merited. It’s a grey area that comes into focus better if transparency is the norm, rather than the exception. Idealistic? Maybe. But when a problem is big enough to affect the reputation of a team or the athletic department as a whole — or the safety of any of its members — the onus is on every single member of the athletic community to be forthcoming. There is no doubt that sensitive situations require discretion, but whenever possible without violating alleged victims’ rights, administrators, coaches and players must lean to the side of revelation. The Yale athletic department is far from scandal-ridden. But we’ve tasted the bitterness that can surround controversy, and we must learn from our mistakes. We can’t shy away from talking about problems, and in failing to acknowledge our shortcomings, we exacerbate them.

It’s not easy to commit to accountability when so much rides on college sports. But there’s neither “lux” nor “veritas” in the way we and other college programs are often afraid to openly address these issues in our community, and the cycle must be broken. It’s not attacking our own to discuss off-field mistakes, personnel changes or on-field concerns: it is, rather, a display of faith. Faith in those who make mistakes to rectify them, faith in coaches and administrators to deal with them fairly and faith in the athletic community to judge its members intelligently. It’s like any other team: Yale athletics and college athletic departments in general (see Penn State…) are only as strong as their weakest link. And in the case of the controversy surrounding Pat Witt, it’s clear that many links broke down. Had anyone ­— Witt himself, an athletic department official or even an investigating member of the Rhodes committee — brought the fact that there were disciplinary issues to light during the media frenzy surrounding his decision, this would have played out very differently. The controversy would likely not be as heated, and the facts would be clearer. This all could have been done while being sensitive to all parties involved by protecting the anonymity of the alleged victim. That kind of transparency with discretion is the solution to a college sports environment struggling to balance integrity and loyalty to student-athletes and university employees. Separately, light and truth are powerful. Together, and with a dash of the sensitivity situations such as Witt’s require, they can extinguish the kind of explosive controversies plaguing college athletics.

Comments