Tony Dobrowolski | Out of the Pages: Protesters' interruption of college football game worth it

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PITTSFIELD — I grew up practically next to the Yale Bowl, and have been to more than 25 Yale-Harvard football games over the past 50 years. But, just my luck, the one game that I didn't attend provided an event last weekend that I wished I'd been able to experience in person.

I'm referring to the protest that Yale and Harvard students conducted last Saturday, asking their schools to divest from their investments in the fossil fuel industry. It came as halftime was coming to an end during the 136th meeting between the two rivals, and ended up delaying the start of the second half by close to an hour.

When play finally resumed, a thrilling finish caused the contest to go into double overtime, which meant it ended in almost total darkness because the 105-year-old Bowl does not have lights — an ironic ending to a day where students from both schools were trying to bring awareness to climate change.

From this Yale football fan's standpoint, the game was extremely exciting, even on television — Yale scored twice in the last 90 seconds to force overtime, then won 50-43 — clearly one of the best games in the series that I ever saw.

But, on reflection, what lingers is the protest and what it accomplished. As far as I know, neither Yale nor Harvard has divested itself of its fossil fuel investments since the sit-in on the football field. But, the action showed that young people continue to take issues like climate change seriously, aren't afraid to express their opinions and are willing to stand up for what they believe in.

It shows that the spirit of protest that first manifested itself when I was growing up is still alive and well, and that my generation, regardless of our shortcomings, has successfully passed the torch on to the ones who came after us. I hope that the baby boomers like me who watched the game and may have been upset with the delay remember that.

The protest has received a lot of media attention since it took place, and given the times we live in, some of that has been dissected across the partisan political divide. As you might expect, it was derided in some segments of the conservative media, and given more acceptance and context by other outlets. Either way, the amount of attention the incident attracted, both pro and con, proves that the protesters were heard loud and clear.

Watching the incident unfold on television was strange, because, at first, no one seemed to know what was going on (family members who were at the game told me later that stadium officials never told the crowd what was taking place).

The announcers on ESPNU, which was televising the game, also had no clue at first. The network quickly cut away to another game while everything was being sorted out, then went back for an update, before cutting away again when the protest continued to grow.

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At that point, I expected the game to be suspended. I was surprised that it continued at all.

The best in-person recap of what occurred that I've read came from former ABC "Good Morning America" weekend anchor Ron Claiborne, who is a Yale alumnus. Here's what Claiborne wrote on social media:

"I was at the Harvard-Yale football game today. When the protesters took the field at halftime, I was annoyed. I wanted to see the game. They were holding it up and I was worried Yale might have to forfeit if they never left. People around me were expressing their displeasure, too. Some just stared. Some left in disgust.

"I was standing and turned around. There was a couple roughly my age directly behind me. They were dressed in Yale gear. I started to say something about the protest being an annoyance. Instead, I said: 'That could have been me doing that.' The couple nodded.

"Then I imagined how we in the stands must have looked to those on the field if they could have seen us right then. Secure. Comfortable. The beneficiaries of the privileges and assumptions afforded the graduates of elite universities. ... People annoyed that their afternoon's entertainment was being disrupted.

"Protest is disruptive. It is intended to be. Maybe it has to be to make comfortable people to pay attention.

"In 1974, my senior year at Yale, William Shockley, a famous geneticist who believed African-Americans were inherently inferior to white people, was scheduled to discuss and defend these views at a debate on campus (the formal topic was 'Resolved: that society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat tragic racial IQ inferiority.') Demonstrators prevented that from taking place. I was one of them. I hadn't thought about that in many years. I remembered that today."

Words well spoken. It made the interruption of a football game worth it.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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