Yale quarterback Patrick Witt withdrew his application for a Rhodes Scholarship this week, after the Rhodes committee informed him that he would have to skip the Harvard-Yale game to attend his scholarship interview. ESPN.com quoted the American Secretary for the Rhodes Trust, Elliot F. Gerson as saying, "We have candidates every year miss games for the interview."
And so here we have yet another parable about sports and academics and the degeneration of priorities—but not Witt's. Witt did the right thing, or the best thing he could do, when confronted with intransigent prigs and weasels.
Gerson, in speaking with ESPN, emphasized that the Rhodes is an "academic award," not—"despite some popular perception of it"—an award for scholar-athletes. This is doublespeak, at best...
Gee, where did that popular perception come from, that sports is integral to being a Rhodes Scholar?... Here's what [scholarship benefactor Cecil Rhodes' will] had to say:
My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the Scholarships shall not be merely bookworms I direct that in the election of a student to a Scholarship regard shall be had to
(i.) his literary and scholastic attainments
(ii.) his fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket football and the like
(iii.) his qualities of manhood truth courage devotion to duty sympathy for the protection of the weak kindliness unselfishness and fellowship
(iv.) his exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates for those latter attributes will be likely in after-life to guide him to esteem the performance of public duty as his highest aim.
... But set aside Cecil Rhodes's specific, strong endorsement of "manly outdoor sports." Times do change. (Rhodes also wanted to create a secret society to unify the world under an all-powerful British Empire.) What about the other criteria the American Rhodes Trust says it wants? "Devotion to duty." "Unselfishness." "Instincts to lead."
The Rhodes Trust says that Witt should have ditched his responsibilities as the starting quarterback, abandoned his teammates in their biggest game of the year, and flown off to pursue an individual reward. This would have demonstrated that he had the proper character to be a Rhodes Scholar.Amen. As hard as it is for me to praise a Yalie (and as much as I'd like to see Witt lose tomorrow), he undoubtedly made the only choice that he could have given his commitments and responsibilities as a teammate. The Rhodes committee deserves at least some of the scorn that it is receiving for its intransigence--and as I previously noted in my original post, if the committee has any true commitment to its founder's cause, it will remember and reward Witt's decision in the future.
It's rare these days to see a person actually stand up for his principles and sacrifice his personal goals for those of a team (particularly when the team is technically playing for nothing but pride), and I think that deserves to be praised. Sometimes the tough decisions are the most important ones to get right, even when the right decision may force us to make sacrifices in the short run. Over the long term, Witt's loyalty will be rewarded--even if it's not the Rhodes committee that rewards it.