Saturday, November 28, 2009

Harvard vs. Yale--The Game I never watch.

Maybe I should, though. When I was in my first year of law school, I went to a couple of Harvard football games. South Florida, my undergraduate alma mater didn't have football back then, so it was a new experience for me to be able to take a Saturday afternoon off, walk a short distance, and catch some gridiron action. I cheered for the Crimson, to no avail on either occasion, as I saw them defeated, first by Dartmouth, who edged them 23-21 for their first loss of the season after four wins, then by a Princeton team that demolished them 45-6 using the single wing offense, which was considered archaic even in 1967. Later, I read a piece in the law school newspaper that instructed 1Ls like me about a point of etiquette: it is uncool, as a law student, to root for Harvard athletic teams unless you are a graduate of that college located a block down Mass Ave. There was no exculpatory provision for having gone to a college that allowed only "participant oriented sports".

So, I went back to following the fortunes of Florida and Florida State, though news of either was hard to get in the Boston area. I remember being surprised by a late night jock on one of the local radio stations saying, "Well, I've got to hand it to my old Florida State team. They beat Florida today." I did get caught up in the celebration of Harvard's 1968 "victory" (actually a 29-29 tie--this was before overtime was introduced to college football) over a Yale team that had Brian Dowling, model for Doonesbury's "BD", at quarterback and Calvin Hill, later a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, and which, going into The Game, was ranked tenth in the nation in the AP poll. After leaving Cambridge, though, I scarcely gave Harvard football a thought.

That is, until I read this account of this year's Harvard-Yale game. It made me wish I could have been in the Yale Bowl for this nail-biter with a finish in doubt until the end, unlike today's Alabama-Auburn game, which was closer than anyone (except Auburn's coach, players and fans) expected, and featured some razzle-dazzle by Auburn early on, but in which I knew that other Crimson (the Tide) would prevail. (Update: See Pete Thamel's analysis in today's New York Times.)

Scanning the comments on the Harvard Magazine article, I found this by my friend and neighbor Bronson Binger:

My first cousin once removed, who graduated from Harvard around 1918, used to say that the Harvard-Yale game was called “The Game” because it was held to decide the amateur championship of the US.
I think that may be more true now than it was in 1918, because much of college football has become distinctly non-amateur. The BCS teams are, in effect, a minor league for the NFL, from which the most promising players are often taken before their college careers are done. Coaches, too, often rise from the BCS schools to the pros (though, unlike players, they may go in the opposite direction as well). I've never been a great fan of the concept of amateurism in athletics, which has historically been used to keep poor people from competing. Still, it's refreshing to see a college game in which the players can all be called "student athletes" without a knowing smirk, and where, perhaps, the game is played with a bit more brio because it's regarded as a game, not a career move.

Update: On big-time college athletics generally, see Gilbert Gaul's op-ed piece in today's Times.