News & Politics

The Rhodes Ultimatum

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt was forced to choose between a life-changing scholarship and the most important game of his life.

Remember the movie Sliding Doors, from back when Gwyneth Paltrow hadn’t yet become a Londoner but just played one? The premise of the flick hinges on a moment in time when Gwenny’s character is running to catch the Tube. In one timeline, she hops on the train in the nick of time, and her life heads in a very positive direction. Then the movie backs up to show the chain of events that results if she were to miss the train—and things turn out quite differently. The message is that one tiny moment in time can be the determining pivot-point for the rest of your life.

Twenty-two-year-old Patrick Witt faced one of those moments this weekend. The Yale University senior with the 3.91 GPA was chosen as a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. As you likely know, these are the grants awarded to the nation’s top students to extend their studies at Oxford for a year after their college graduation, all expenses paid. “Prestigious” doesn’t begin to describe the honor. Bill Clinton, Franklin Raines, Walter Isaacson, Bill Bradley, Robert Reich, Strobe Talbott, Susan Rice, and General Wesley Clark are just a few of the scholars who have been given the nod over the past half century, and I suspect most would confess the Rhodes played no small role in their early success and their establishment as bona fide intellectuals.

Young Mr. Witt was hoping to join their ranks. But there was a problem.

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The six-foot-four, 230-pound Georgia native is also the starting quarterback for the Yale Bulldogs football team. And we’re not talking about some run-of-the-mill signal caller. Witt was the Ivy League leader last year in passing yards, completions, and a variety of other categories. (He actually started his college career at Nebraska and played in the 2009 Gator Bowl but transferred to Yale because he needed a greater challenge academically. Sheesh, what a jock.)

Here’s the catch: Witt’s final interview in front of the Rhodes Trust was scheduled for this past Saturday, the same day as—wait for it—the Harvard-Yale game. The Harvard-Yale game may not mean anything to you, but if you go to one of those schools, it means everything. Last Saturday’s showdown was the 128th instance of what has become known simply as “the Game” (the “Nerd Bowl” was deemed slightly less marketable). The rivalry dates back to 1875.

Witt had a decision to make—a big one. In fact, without risk of hyperbole, you could call it a life changer. Would he attend the interview, prioritizing his personal interests over those of his team? Or would he play in the game, honoring his responsibilities on the gridiron at the risk of forfeiting his future? Before you read the next paragraph, take a minute and ask yourself: What would you do? Or better yet, what would you advise your child to do?

I’ll spare you the suspense. Witt passed on the Rhodes interview and played in the game. He asked the Rhodes committee to alter his scheduled interview time so he could make it back to New Haven in time for kickoff, but that request was not honored. Witt withdrew his application for the scholarship.
Now, I realize applying for a Rhodes scholarship is not like rushing a fraternity or signing up for a credit card. A little sacrifice on the part of the applicant should be required. But where in the Rhodes bylaws does it state that humanity can’t be part of the process? How about some minor flexibility? Witt should never have been forced to make that decision.
The Rhodes Legacy lists the following among the criteria they seek in recipients of their awards: “fondness for and success in sports. . . . Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings.”
I would argue that Witt is showing a rather significant moral force of character and interest in his fellow beings by passing up the chance at massive personal gain to fulfill what he feels is an obligation to his teammates. That strikes me as exactly the kind of person the Rhodes committee would be interested in signing up. Conversely, any person who would abdicate such responsibilities to pursue the scholarship would by definition be displaying traits that would seem to disqualify him from consideration. The rigidity of the interview process may be unwittingly weeding out some of its most meritorious candidates.
“The Rhodes judges clearly aren’t respecting some of the very qualities that made Patrick a finalist by their inability to make an exception for his unique circumstance.”
That rather insightful sentence was uttered to me in a chat with Yale senior defensive end Cliff Foreman. Foreman is a DC native who went to high school at St. Albans and is among the majority of Bulldog football players who were desperate to have Patrick play on Saturday but don’t think it was fair he had to make such a massive personal sacrifice to do it. “His team is much more deserving of him and his great leadership in our biggest game of the year than the Rhodes judges,” opined Foreman.
And how would his teammates have felt had Patrick made the opposite decision? Yale senior defensive lineman Pat Moran left little doubt. “He knew where the team stood and what we expected of him. We entered the season with an expectation, and Pat showing up Saturday ready to play was critical to accomplishing our goal.”

That is a surprisingly blunt answer from a guy who knows a thing or two about the political value of a carefully parsed sentence. Moran is not only Witt’s teammate; he is also the son of Virginia congressman and former Alexandria mayor Jim Moran and has worked extensively on his father’s campaigns. The younger Moran says that had Witt chosen the interview over the game, “the question of ‘what if’ would have followed him for a very long time.”

It’s not like the Rhodes committee has a track record of total recalcitrance when it comes to its scheduling. Accommodations have been made in the past to allow for athletic and other sorts of commitments. As recently as 2009, Witt’s former Yale teammate Casey Gerald was given dispensation to leave his interview site earlier than other candidates to be able to play in this very game. But not this year and not for Patrick.
Life is a series of accommodations and compromises. You give a little here; you get a little there. It is the very nature of the diplomacy—a line of work to which so many Rhodes alumni devote their lives after their school days are over. Perhaps the Rhodes folks should engage in some themselves. This isn’t 1902, when the scholarships were first handed out. Life is more complex nowadays, and problem-solving requires a little more nuance and flexibility. I mean, if the President of the United States is pliable enough to reschedule a speech in deference to a Republican debate, can’t the Rhodes people move an interview in deference to a football game?
By the way, Yale lost the game 45–7. Witt threw a 22-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, after which the Crimson scored 45 unanswered points. Witt can reapply for the Rhodes scholarship through age 24. I suspect he may have better things to do.

Be sure to join Brett Haber for his biweekly chat on Monday, Novmeber 28 at 11 AM. Submit your questions here.

Follow Brett on Twitter at @BrettHaber