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. Here is how the Rhodes Trust describes the founding principles of the scholarship:
Mr. Rhodes' Will contains four criteria by which prospective Rhodes Scholars are to be selected:
1. literary and scholastic attainments;
2. energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports;
3. truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship;
4. moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.
Gee, where did that popular perception come from, that sports is integral to being a Rhodes Scholar? And even this is not exactly faithful to the text of Rhodes's will. Here's what the real document 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.
Down through the years, the American interpretation of Rhodes's anti-bookworm principles has loosened to the point that the Trust's FAQ now includes this:
Q3. How important really are sports? I don't even play intramurals. I did a little in high school, but in college, the most I do athletically is walk to classes and jog occasionally. To tell you the truth, I'm pretty uncoordinated. But I'm fit. Does that disqualify me? What should I put on my application?
A. One of the criteria cited in Cecil Rhodes' Will was ". . . the energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports." In this regard, we look first for energetic applicants who make maximum use of their abilities. As with all the criteria in Mr. Rhodes' Will—the evolution of Oxford, the experience of one hundred years of the Scholarships, views of the Rhodes Trustees and selection committees as to why Mr. Rhodes listed success in sports as important, and the necessarily (and appropriately) subjective views of our rotating selectors all color the interpretation. I think it's fair to say today, however, that only rarely does athletic distinction alone tip the scales for a selection committee.
The trust goes on to write, piously:
Sadly, success in major varsity sports at large colleges and universities has often required a virtually semi-professional time commitment in the U. S. (unlike at Oxford), making it very difficult, although not impossible, for such athletes to develop the other criteria we look for.
Witt wasn't trying to reschedule his interview to make room for mandatory spring drills or extra time in the weight room; he was trying to keep clear the Saturday afternoon when his team was scheduled to play a football game. Perhaps the Oxford rowing team sometimes sends out only a crew of five for a race of eight-man boats, because they have their values in order?
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.