The prologue is by now familiar: A star athlete and stellar student, Patrick Witt spent half of last November debating whether he would attend his Rhodes scholarship interview in Atlanta or lead Yale against Harvard in his final college football game. Choosing team over self-interest, Witt captured the nation’s heart. But here the plot twists: According to The New York Times, by the time Witt announced his decision, it was no longer his to make. Allegedly, upon learning that another student had accused Witt of sexual assault, the Rhodes Trust banished the heroic quarterback from its prestigious scholarship competition.
Released last Thursday, the story read as if printed in war paint. Injustice was afoot, it cried. The University had harbored a purported criminal and allowed the national media to extol his moral fiber. Battle beckoned, and I shared the story on Facebook. Though Witt and Yale had escaped official rebuke, in the court of public opinion they would fall.
But in my bloodlust, I missed the point entirely. True, I convicted Witt rashly, but that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that in my thirst for blood, I was blind to the story’s most important character: Witt’s alleged victim.
In a statement, Witt denied The Times’ allegations. His decision, he maintains, had nothing to do with the charges brought against him. The truth about the matter may well remain elusive: Already the involved parties have begun to entrench themselves behind “confidentiality” and “anonymity” and euphemistic officialisms such as “sexual misconduct.”
Uncertainty may forever riddle the record, but something about the story offends common sense. For weeks last November, we watched Witt grapple publicly with his dilemma while the national media doted on his character. He never shied away from the spotlight, nor did the University pass up on the publicity. Throughout the ordeal, the fact that a woman had accused Witt of sexual assault went unmentioned. Who knew what and when remains unclear, but the fact that nobody said anything now seems absurd.
True, Yale has an obligation to protect its students’ privacy, but its behavior blurred the line between confidentiality and callous complacency. No better was the response of the Rhodes Trust. Its request for a re-endorsement was little more than a punt, a strategy to avoid accountability by deferring to Yale’s authority. Most unnerving is the fact that this particular drama will never play out on an official stage — there will be no trial, no inquiry, no blood.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Witt’s victim never wanted her story plastered on the pages of The New York Times. Maybe, just maybe, she never thirsted for blood.
Sexual assault is a crime of usurped control. The assailant robs the victim whole — her choice disregarded, her will trespassed, her body taken. Whatever its flaws, Yale’s SHARE Center allows victims to regain a modicum of control. Complaints may be criminal or disciplinary, formal or informal, and the victim alone chooses how to tell her story. It is a system whose purpose is neither to mete out punishment nor to redress social wrongs but to enable the victim to assert ownership over her story in whatever way she sees fit.
In this case, the question of ownership seems more complex. Because Witt is a national figure, his actions reverberate on a grander scale. Witt’s conduct offends not only the victim, but us, too. We, too, own the story, if only partially. Yet to take our indignation as leave for appropriation forgets an important fact: Allegedly, Witt’s crime was committed in his victim’s college dorm room, and she alone was assaulted.
In reporting her story informally, Witt’s victim chose a degree of anonymity. Informal complaints happen swiftly — procedures can last as little as one or two days — and involve little or no investigation. No discipline ensues — Witt was supposedly told only to keep away from his victim — and the complaint’s documentation disappears into the University’s confidential records. The process spills no blood, but it allows the victim to gain ownership over her story— to salvage a sliver of usurped control.
My bloodthirstiness trampled upon that process thoroughly. I felt wronged, and blindly I set out to settle the score.
As it turns out, the score isn’t mine to settle.
Teo Soares is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.