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Keith Strudler: The Protest Heard Around The Ivy League

It’s a common conception that the students at Harvard and Yale will one day run the world, with all due respect to our military academies – and Princeton, I suppose. If that’s the case, a few of the most current class may have to do so without the benefit of a clean criminal record. Because last Saturday, students from the two Ivy League universities – along with assorted faculty and alumni – took to field during halftime of the annual Harvard/Yale football game to protest both university’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, among other things. More to the point, these future senators and CEO’s wanted to make a point about climate change, and they chose perhaps the sports most vaunted rivalry to stake that claim.

At its peak, about 500 people were on the field during halftime, hundreds joining the 70 or so that started the movement. That led to a fairly lengthy delay, stretching a 15-minute halftime to well over an hour, which came to an end when police officers finally convinced the lion’s share to leave the field. They did ultimately issue 42 misdemeanor summonses for disorderly conduct, which I’m guessing will have absolutely no impact these students’ ability to go to Stanford Law School and inevitably join the 1% club.

Reactions to the protest were mixed, although far more civil than one would expect at a college football game with 45,000 fans in attendance and national broadcast audience on ESPNU. Without a doubt, if this happened at this weekend’s Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama, the protest would probably come to a swift and likely physical end – and likely before anyone watching at home even noticed. Not surprisingly, an ethos of free speech and political activism are a bit more accepted in New Haven than Tuscaloosa. Which is why some notable figures, like Alyssa Milano and Elizabeth Warren, took to twitter to support the movement. I’m guessing neither are particularly fervent college football fans, but that’s just a guess. Conversely, some fans yelled things like “drag them off the field,” which didn’t happen.

Protest movements are obviously not foreign to spectator sporting events, although typically we’re more familiar with athlete activism than fan demonstrations. Quite often, sport organizers make sure to keep protestors outside the boundaries of the game, like what the Master’s golf tournament did when Martha Burke tried to lead a protest against Augusta National’s gender policy, keeping her relatively small group of allies far off tournament grounds. And for the most part, the field of play is sacred space in most sporting environments, which means that most activists hoping to rush the field to make a point will be met with far less understanding than these folks from Yale and Harvard. And perhaps even more to the point, the audience at most sporting events is largely there because they want to watch their favorite teams play, and they typically pay a hefty sum for the privilege. So anything that expressly interferes with that is largely met with angst, if not much worse.

That said, the question at hand is simple. Did Saturday’s protest “work,” for lack of a better term?

As for efficacy, it’s nearly impossible to know, although perhaps we’ll kind of find out. Both Harvard and Yale will either divest or continue to support the fossil fuel industries through their endowment investments. But even that’s hard to know for sure. In the end, both universities have a fiduciary responsibility to their stakeholders, including students, and it’s probably going to take more than a protest at a football game to fully change the calculus on endowment dollars.

That said perhaps the most common critique of Saturday’s sit-in was that it largely seemed like elite students of privilege telling the world how to fix itself. At the expense of a bunch of fans and athletes that probably just wanted to play. All of which affirmed a narrative of Ivy Leaguers who simply don’t relate to vast majority of folks who don’t attend Yale, Harvard, or any of the other six conference counterparts. Which means Saturday’s protest, while certainly well intentioned, was perhaps also somewhat tone deaf. That may be completely and wholly unfair, but as they say, it is what it is.

Should universities divest from fossil fuels? Of course. And is climate change an existential crisis? Absolutely. But did delaying a football game by 60 minutes help to change that reality? That’s debatable.

For the record, Yale won in double overtime in a game that was nearly stopped because of darkness. Which means that Mother Nature would have had the last word – even for a game played by people that would someday run the world.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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