Notes on the Harvard-Yale Cockfight

What does The Game tell us about Harvard?

The Far Side

In April of 1958, Clifford Geertz arrived, “malarial and diffident,” in Bali. An enormously influential cultural anthropologist, he was there to study a local village, where he was intrigued by, and he found himself studying, cockfights.

Geertz described his findings in the famous essay, “Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight.” At these male-only events, broken beaks and bloody feathers flew, onlookers made complex wagers, and kinship ties and social prestige and manly dignity were ripped and clawed along with the cocks in the ring. A participant-observer in the ordered chaos, Geertz famously read the cockfight as a cultural text—a representation of Balinese culture.

The fight, he reasoned, expressed the inexpressible urges of animality and aggression that paradoxically underpinned the village’s social hierarchy. Subconsciously, the Balinese men were identifying themselves—their manliness, their position in society, their taboo animalistic drives—with the birds in the ring. But no matter the outcome, the cockfight never changed the village’s social order. It was simply a representation.

In almost every November since 1875, when America’s oldest rivals have clashed on the football field, Harvard and Yale have staged their own Balinese cockfight.

The Game is never really about the game. Most of us don’t wave foam fingers and shout “Yale sucks!” in sub-freezing rain because we’re passionate about Harvard football. If we did, every Ivy League football game would look like ESPN’s Big Ten College Gameday (and if you think that’s the case, just look at your state-school friends’ Snapchat Stories).

Geertz, in fact, would call Harvard-Yale a “deep play,” a situation in which the costs of losing are so high, no rational agent would participate. The athletes, banging their heads like mountain rams for Fair Harvard, risk injury and long-term brain damage. Most students in the sober minority are bored; most students in the intoxicated majority aren’t enjoying The Game so much as the tailgate shenanigans. Alumni shiver in Harvard sweaters as conniving Yalies trick them into saying their own team sucks.

No matter the score, no one wins. (If anyone needs more convincing, look no further than last year’s Saybrook Strip. Everyone lost after that quarter.) The only party even remotely close to not losing in the Harvard-Yale cockfight is MIT, which, between the 1982 great balloon hack and 1990 goal-post banner prank, has probably had the most fun laughing at the Ivy League squabblers.

If Harvard-Yale doesn’t make sense as a football game, we should try reading it, like Geertz’s cockfight, as a cultural text. The Game’s roots as a representation of something outside the gridiron actually reach back to the late 19th century. As Kim Townsend describes in her 1996 book, “Manhood at Harvard,” Harvard was said to have lost “a certain sense of manhood” after losing to Yale in the 1880s and 1890s. When Harvard threatened to suspend football after the 1984 bloodbath at Hampden Park, Townsend wrote that even Teddy Roosevelt argued that without the sport, Harvard would “turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.” The Harvard-Yale clash was not so much a game, then, but a substitute for battle in post Civil-War America—a test of Harvard men’s virile virtue and gritty mettle.

Whether we realize it or not, The Game’s crunching shoulder pads, slamming bodies, shrieking whistles, and bestial crowd roars still express that struggle between elitist titans trying to prove a form of “manhood”—that proud superiority that gets at something more primal, more gutsy and character-based than academics or athletics. The long-running rivalry, amped up by football’s violence, raises the stakes to as close to life-or-death as we’re likely to get in the Ancient Eight today. It gives Harvard a chance to marshal almost savage instincts, usually caged by the classroom, to prove to itself and everyone else (even by proxy) its supremacy as the elite of the elite—not just in the classroom or on the football field, but in a sort of all-of-Harvard versus all-of-Yale total war.

And in the midst of this high-stakes struggle, Harvard-Yale generates an annual high of warlike school spirit bigger than any other event of the year. Strangers high-five and students cheer in waves of solid crimson. No one cares about House affiliation, extracurricular association, or concentration. Decked out in Harvard sweaters, united like a boisterous army front, we’re all together, and we’re all actually happy to attend Harvard.

It’s a shame that we need a rivalry with a malformed bulldog to make us feel that sense of campus camaraderie. We spend so much time hating Harvard, complaining about academic pressures, extracurricular schedules, the Undergraduate Council, administrative decisions, Brain Break, Harvard Time, Lamont bag checkers, and Expos, that we forget to take pride in our school and in each other.

School spirit isn’t just some corny excuse to sing Kumbaya at pep rallies; it’s a way of inspiring the community our administration tries to create. Maybe if we spent less time emphasizing our differences—as wonderfully diverse as they are—and more time coming together to celebrate our pride in each other and in our school, we’d have a deeper sense of community, a gratitude and excitement that lasts beyond the third Saturday of November.

For all these rough anthropological approximations, whether Harvard beats Yale 29-29, triumphs for nine years straight, or loses 21-14 to the Bulldogs’ spirit-stripping comeback, nothing changes. Harvard’s endowment is still bigger, its rankings still higher, and its prestigious reputation still wider than Yale’s. After the blood and guts and torn feathers, the social order, as Geertz analyzed, stays the same.

But if Harvard-Yale became the catalyst for a permanent attitude shift toward gratitude and real community, The Game might actually do more than represent Harvard’s gritty struggle for Ivy League hegemony. Until we can capture that sense of school pride, appreciation, and camaraderie outside the football stadium, though, Harvard-Yale will continue to be a deep play. Just in time for Thanksgiving, we’ll settle back into our old grumbling mindset: that even if we hate Harvard, at least it’s better than Yale.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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