Understanding tactics of Harvard-Yale game protestors
This year’s annual Harvard-Yale game slipped past my attention, as it does most years — until I saw in the Associated Press’s headline that it made the news: it was one of the rivals’ longest games on record.
And there was a protest! Actually, there were two issues being protested by students from both schools: divesting from fossil fuels and canceling Puerto Rican debt. For about an hour, activists from both schools joined forces at the venerable game (sometimes referred to by the schools’ alumni and students as “THE Game”) that annually draws thousands of alumni in person, and hundreds of thousands more at home, even though it’s not even broadcast by a major television network. What better place to protest?
I read the article with disbelief. On the one hand, it’s just a game. It’s not the oldest rivalry out there. However, it does pit two elite universities with hundreds of years of history against each other as they fight for the claim to be the best-of-the-best. This particular game brings out all the alumni, and it is the original “THE Game” — with that original nickname.
The issue of supporting the divestment from fossil fuels is important. In fact, many in the stands fully supported that. But once the protestors made their point, why did they have to drag it on for so long? Initially, 70 protesters occupied the field during halftime. After it became clear that they were not going to leave, fans from the stands streamed down to join them as a sign of solidarity.
Was this the diversion that this year’s Yale team needed to win in their “one for the record books” game? Down by 20 points, they came back to win in double overtime, in near pitch darkness.
The protesters were out there to raise awareness that their schools invest in fossil fuels. Their website reads: “We disrupted The Game because when Harvard and Yale are complicit in the climate crisis, nobody wins.” And they added to the list of things being protested that their schools cancel their holdings in Puerto Rican debt. How exactly was this related?
Some spectators objected to their timing and the choice of a football game as a legitimate venue for protest, even if they agreed in principle. Others just wanted them off the field, and wondered why they were being disrespectful to their fellow students. Many of them wanted the students arrested (and some were, namely those who were on the field more than 30–45 minutes). The claim was that the fans had paid for their tickets and they expected to see a game.
As we all know, keeping the lights on at a school costs money, and even two schools with some pretty sizeable endowment coffers have to wonder about the financial prudence of immediate divestment. Yale has been changing its investment strategy for years. Starting in 2016, Yale asked its money managers to avoid investments that are linked to climate change. They claim that their investment decisions are thus economically driven.
Harvard has yet to divest at all. Again, the truth is that it’s never that easy. Stocks are everywhere, even in index funds. And using electricity while demanding divestment seems incongruous. And given that the money is used as a “resource” (per former Harvard President Drew Faust’s comments), which means they think that this transforms the money from sin money to something more noble: education. In the past, at least as a partial result of protests, Harvard University divested some of its endowments from companies doing business in South Africa in 1986, and then from tobacco companies in 1990.
Harvard has a history, however, of refusing to divest its endowment from investments that are an instrument of social change. Recently, current University President Lawrence S. Bacow elaborated on this, adding that not only was endowment divesting improper, but that it was “impractical and ineffective.” Bacow stated that it was necessary to work with the companies in the fossil fuel industry. Instead, the endowments should be used as they always have: to further research and scholarship.
Additionally, even if the endowment divested its $39.2 billion fossil fuel endowment, Harvard is still somehow invested, perhaps even through an index fund, which might have some direct connection with the fossil fuel industry. Bacow further elaborated that it might appear disingenuous if Harvard used a firm’s products, and conducted research in partnership with some companies, and then didn’t own their stock.
Some commented that the protestors (and supporters) would then be using fossil fuels when they boarded planes to go home and electricity used for lighting to study at night.
Additionally, is anyone really watching these players? Are the players really hoping to get drafted by the NFL? Maybe a very few? Then what is the game for — bragging rights? Supremacy of one school over another on the gridiron? The ability to lord it over your friends who went to the other school — for a year.
On the other hand, there is a time and place for demonstrations. Wasn’t this the best possible time for a demonstration, when people are watching this one singular game? And were it not for social media, this event might not have been as amplified as it was.
Mostly, the protest was peaceful and only 32 people were arrested, largely due to not leaving the field in a timely manner. What was the point of the protest? To divest from funds and companies supporting fossil fuels. According to the protestors, football could wait.
I thought protesting during halftime at this game was a brilliant strategy on the part of the protestors. I agree that something has to be done, and protesting has been effective in the past, although it takes time to make an impact. Part of me wonders how much the protestors really understand about climate change, especially with respect to the involvement of the schools they attend. Another part of me realizes the schools’ administrations also make valid points. But until these two groups start talking to each other instead of at each other, the impasse will remain. Let’s face it: fossil fuels reach deep into our everyday lives in unseen ways and extracting ourselves will be no simple matter.
The mere fact that Harvard is playing Yale in a football game, and that people cared, seemed to me to be a bit elitist, given that neither school is known for its football prowess anymore. The game itself was one for the record books of this long running rivalry because of Yale’s epic come from behind victory over Harvard, in double overtime, in the pitch dark stadium in New Haven, Connecticut, 50-43.