Like particles in a super collider, opposing forces of American culture smashed together this past weekend on a historic football field in Connecticut. And like a physics experiment, the resulting impact shed light on the state of the country and provides us all with a ready framed discussion for the Thanksgiving weekend.
At halftime of the 136th annual Harvard-Yale football game, arguably the oldest sports rivalry in the country, a few hundred student demonstrators took to the field carrying banners demanding "Climate Justice." They squatted at midfield and vowed not to move until both universities committed to divest their multi-billion dollar endowments from fossil fuel companies. (After the incident some student organizers clarified that their ultimate goal is the banning of fossil fuel production and consumption).
Although scores of local police were on the field, no moves were taken to force the students to leave. Play was delayed for 48 minutes while school administrators, wary no doubt of an ugly televised scene, tried to work out a deal to get the kids off the field peacefully. The stakes were high. Although the Ivy League has long lost its position at the center of the sports world, the Harvard-Yale Game nevertheless means a lot of things to a lot of people.
While few, if any, of the players on the field are destined for the NFL, they are athletes of talent and accomplishment. For the seniors on the field, the game most likely represented the crowning moment in years of dedication and grueling physical conditioning. While their athletic abilities certainly eased their admissions, Ivy League athletes do not enjoy the sham academic pathways that exist for players in the powerhouse conferences. In other words, the players worked hard and sacrificed much to be on the field that day.
Similarly many in the stands, came to the game out of tradition, school spirit, family connections, or all three. Many traveled from across the country, or around the world to experience a uniquely American spectacle that hasn't changed much in nearly a century and a half.
In fact, nostalgia played an unwitting role in the drama. Unlike nearly all facilities that host major sporting events today, the Yale Bowl, completed in 1914 (my grandfather worked on the construction), has no lights for night games. That meant the game would have to end no later than 4:45 pm, when darkness descends completely in a New England November. Typically the game would have been over at 3:30 pm at the latest. A delay of more than an hour could push the game into darkness, requiring a cancellation. A tie resulting in overtime, would invite even more difficulties. Since the game had direct implications for the Ivy League championship, an incomplete game could cause major headaches on many levels.
Knowing all of this, Yale administrators hit the field to plead their case to the chanting protesters locking arms on the turf.