ITHACA, N.Y. – Justin Sears, one of the most jovial college athletes you’ll meet, came bounding down the stairs at Newman Arena after one of the best days of his college career.
Yes, he finished with a season-low five points, but his Yale team has just obliterated Cornell 88-54 to move to 12-1 in the Ivy League season, almost uncharted territory for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1962.
Sears and the Bulldogs are one win away from ending that 54-year drought, one that came about as close as you could possibly come to being put to rest at 53 years last year before a devastating loss to Dartmouth and a subsequent heartbreaking loss to Harvard in the Ivy playoff.
He will finish his career as one of Yale’s (perhaps the Ivy League’s) most decorated all-time players. By this time next week, he should be a two-time Ivy Player of the Year and a three-team first-team all-conference selection (Yale’s first since all-time great Chris Dudley from 1985-87) in addition to being on the career Yale leaderboard in several different categories.
But as he made his way down the stairs, his gait slowed from a skip to a walk and his body language turned an unnatural chilly when he saw cameras ahead of his path.
“Um, I don’t think I’m supposed to talk to you guys,” Sears said.
No one will still say officially why Jack Montague – Yale’s captain – has withdrawn (or was expelled) from school a few months away from graduation and in the middle of the Bulldogs’ possible title run. But in the past week, the pieces to the puzzle are starting to make some sense.
Last Friday before the game against Harvard, the Yale team wore T-shirts with Montague’s name and number on it in what seemed like a clear show of support for him.
Then Monday, posters appeared at Payne Whitney Gym and other places on Yale’s campus reading “Stop supporting a rapist” with pictures of the Yale team in their T-shirts on it. Those posters brought both the local and national media to the scene, and elicited a cryptic statement out of the Yale Women’s Center.
Still, there has been no arrest and Yale has provided no official reason for Montague’s departure. Montague’s father, though, did say to the New Haven Register, “It’s ridiculous, why he’s expelled.”
Before we go any further, let’s make a couple of things clear. Rape culture is not a figment of the liberal media’s imagination and sexual assault on college campuses is much more prevalent than most understand. Exacerbating the problem are the hurdles and doubt victims face coming forward in the current legal system and mostly male-dominated world culture, let alone American.
However, Montague’s case is not the first involving a high-profile Yale athlete to become public in the recent past. Quarterback Patrick Witt was never dismissed from school, but his reputation took a beating in 2012 when the New York Times published details of a sexual misconduct case that allegedly forced him to drop his candidacy for a Rhodes Scholarship.
(Here are the complete Yale UWC Procedures, which are fairly clear and recently revised.)
The alleged reason for that is anonymity, which Montague doesn’t have anymore, either, so without transparency, we have no idea. Yale does give a compelling reason for doing this, “Confidentiality of the UWC proceedings is essential to the effective discharge of the UWC’s functions and allows the UWC to make decisions free of external influence of any sort.” But now that this case (like Witt’s) has gone viral, it leaves the public to draw conclusions that may or may not exist.
Which brings us to the T-shirts. When the team wore the T-shirts, it was not clear what was going on with Montague. Now it appears though that many on campus (and elsewhere) believe that the team was protecting him. Sexual assault is an extremely hot-button issue (with the attention being a positive development) at the moment. Lady Gaga’s powerful Oscar performance of “Til It Happens To You” – which came just hours before the posters against the basketball team first went up on the Yale campus – was perhaps the most memorable portion of the show, and college athletics in general has seemingly long been slow to fully deal with the problem.
And so here we are. I understand why people are upset.
As far as Montague, he has reportedly hired attorneys and may get to tell his side of the story sometime in the near future. And that is why the normally talkative Sears went looking for cover after Friday’s game. Eventually, he did talk.
“This is the game we love to play,” Sears said. “I love to play.”
Yale coach James Jones is not as chatty with the media as his star player, but he was forced to be the spokesperson on this night.
“For me as kid growing up, I found that basketball is a sanctuary where I was able to go and be at peace, no one can hurt you between the lines,” Jones said. “So you go and do the best you can and enjoy that time. I told the team before the game to go out and have fun, that’s what you’re here. And hopefully we can do it again tomorrow.”
There are people who will deem those comments “insensitive” or “callous,” and again, I can understand.
It all creates what should be a surreal atmosphere Saturday night at Levien Gym. Because of its exploits on the court, Yale is now a lightning rod. Among their Ivy League basketball peers not named Princeton and Columbia (yes, even Harvard), the Bulldogs have become a bit of a sentimental favorite, a likable bunch with a half-century NCAA tournament drought who may deserve a break after last year’s Shakespearian ending.
But there is now an entire other growing group that could care less about basketball where “likable” would be the last adjective used to describe them, and the national media will be there to report on what they do as well.
I don’t excuse any of what the Yale basketball team does. They are now adults, and these are lessons that the future leaders of America must learn. However, should they grab that NCAA tournament berth, I hope they have a moment to celebrate.
But there are important questions to be asked and many lessons that hopefully can be gained. And most of them are more important than any basketball game.
(Update: Saturday morning Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway sent an e-mail out to the Yale community, writing: “I am committed to providing a safe campus for all of you, protecting your privacy, preventing harassment of all kinds, and ensuring that you can make your voices heard. I know that I can count on you to join me in this effort by treating each other with respect — especially when you disagree.”)