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Doubts cast over Yale QB's Rhodes honor

The New York Times' Richard Perez-Pena shares details from a report about the quiet collapse of Patrick Witt's Rhodes Scholar candidacy amidst claims of sexual assault.

Patrick Witt, the 22-year-old Yale quarterback who made headlines in November when he chose to lead Yale against arch rival Harvard University over an interview for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship may not have been faced with that tough choice after all.

According to a New York Times article, the Rhodes Trust suspended Witt's candidacy several days before he announced he had removed himself from consideration on Nov. 13, 2011.

According to the article, the Rhodes Trust had learned several days earlier "through unofficial channels" that a Yale student had accused Witt of sexual assault.

In a statement released Friday, Mark Magazu, Witt's agent, said,"The New York Times story incorrectly connects Patrick's decision to forego the Rhodes Scholarship with an informal complaint process that had concluded on campus weeks prior to his withdrawal – a process that yielded no disciplinary measures, formal reports, or referrals to higher authorities."

Citing interviews with several unnamed sources “with knowledge of all or part of the story,” the Times reported a female Yale student approached the school’s assault response center in September alleging that Witt had sexually assaulted her in her dorm room. She later also made a complaint to the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, according to the article.

Students at Yale can file formal or informal complaints with this committee, and the university maintains confidentiality in both cases. Yale College Dean Mary Miller told the Yale Daily News that she is only notified of formal complaints.

An informal complaint, which the Times reported was filed against Witt, leads to either brief or no investigation and can be resolved within a few days. Magazu's statement claims Witt's request to the sexual misconduct committee for a formal inquiry was denied because "there was nothing to defend against since no formal complaint was ever filed." Witt considered the matter closed.

The statement claims Witt was aware an anonymous source had contacted the Rhodes Trust about the informal complaint. It goes on to say that Witt and the woman who filed the informal complaint had had an on-again, off-again relationship that began in the spring of 2011 and ended two months before the complaint was filed.

Magazu's statement on behalf of Witt went on to say, "To be clear, Patrick's Rhodes candidacy was never "suspended", as the article suggests, and his official record at Yale contains no disciplinary issues."

Elliot Gerson, the American secretary for the Rhodes Trust, declined to comment on whether Witt's candidacy was indeed suspended.

Witt attended Commencement in May, 2011 and returned to Yale in the fall to complete his studies as a second-semester senior. He told the Yale Daily News on Jan. 8 that he had “already graduated,” but, according to the college paper, University spokesman Tom Conroy said Thursday night that Witt has not graduated. Conroy told NBC News that was not uncommon.

According to the statement, Witt completed all necessary coursework and will graduate upon completing his senior essay this spring.

Witt has been training in California in preparation for the Feb. 22-28 NFL Combine at Indianapolis, according to the Yale athletics website.

Witt found out on Oct. 31, 2011 that he was one of the 212 finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship, which provides full financial support for scholars to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. But the date of the mandatory interview in Atlanta coincided with "The Game," a longstanding football rivalry between Harvard and Yale taking place in New Haven, Conn.

Witt, the most accurate passer in Yale University history, spoke with NBC Nightly News in early November about the tough decision he was facing.

"It's thrilling," Witt said at the time, "but, again, it's a big dilemma."

On the one hand, the opportunity to be a Rhodes Scholar, Witt said, is tremendous. “And it is a difficult process. There are plenty of excellent candidates every year that aren’t selected, so that’s one part of it,” he said.

On the other, the game against Harvard would be Witt’s last college game. “And I’ve invested a lot of time. This is a sport I’ve been playing since I was a kid.”

Witt, a history major with a 3.91 grade point average, told Nightly News he wanted to study international relations at Oxford in preparation for a career in politics. "At the end of the day, the best advice I've been given is ‘this is your decision and you have to do what's right for you,’” he said at the time.

Witt transferred to Yale in 2009 from the University of Nebraska, where he had a four-year athletic scholarship as a quarterback for the Cornhuskers. While the football was challenging, Witt told Nightly News he felt frustrated in the classroom.

The Texas native graduated from high school early and enrolled at Nebraska in January 2007, where he participated in spring drills. He prepared as Nebraska’s No. 3 quarterback throughout the year, but redshirted. Off the field, Witt posted a 4.0 grade-point average.

In December 2007, Witt was arrested on suspicion of trespassing in a student dorm, third-degree assault by menacing threats, and possession of a false ID, according to an article published in the Lincoln Journal Star. The paper reported Witt signed in with a different name and went up to a floor without waiting to be escorted.

Police told the paper Witt pushed a dorm resident assistant several times, making threatening remarks. Police told the paper Witt also showed signs of alcohol intoxication and his blood alcohol content was 0.115.

The Times reported a second arrest came in New Haven in 2010 for third-degree criminal trespass and was sparked by a disagreement when Witt was denied entry into Toad's Place, a club near the Yale campus.

In the statement released on his behalf, Witt's agent wrote that "Patrick respects the academic traditions of both Yale and the Rhodes Trust, and he remains grateful for the opportunities each has afforded him." 

In an appearance Friday on MSNBC’s NewsNation, Times education reporter Richard Perez-Pena, who wrote the article, defended the reporting. While anonymous, the sources are “unimpeachable,” he said.

Several comments on the Times website had criticized the story as “lazy reporting” and “sensationalism.” The story “was filled with innuendo and numerous anonymous sources,” a commenter called Lillian wrote.

“Had [Witt] not been a Rhodes candidate, this isn’t something that we would have reported on,” Perez-Pena said.