Climate Change Protesters Disrupt Yale-Harvard Football Game

Climate change activists with banners as they take the field during halftime of the Yale-Harvard football game in New Haven, Conn., on Nov. 23, 2019. Demonstrators disrupted the game to call attention to the universities to divest their investments in fossil fuels. (Monica Jorge/The New York Times)


Britton O’Daly

c.2019 The New York Times Company


NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Climate change activists stormed the field at the Yale-Harvard football game Saturday afternoon, disrupting the game at halftime in a protest to call attention to the universities to divest their investments in fossil fuels.

About 70 protesters took to the field just before 2 p.m. after the game’s halftime show. They were then joined by others from the stands.

At its peak, the demonstration drew up to 500 people, packing about 45 yards of play between the large numbers that marked yardage and delaying the game for roughly an hour.

Players from both schools warmed up as police and security officers surrounded the demonstrators and announcements were made on the public address system imploring protesters to clear the field.

The game was being aired live on cable television, with ESPNU switching to another game during the delay while periodically checking on the efforts of officials to clear the field.

As the protesters sat at midfield chanting and clapping, players retreated indoors. Then, to the tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” hundreds of fans rushed to join the protesters on the field as it became clear the game would not resume as scheduled.

Reactions from the crowd were mixed; some attendees began booing and others shouted “Drag them off the field!” One sign in the stands read “Harvard & Yale Complicit.”

As more police officers surrounded the demonstrators, the crowd on the field thinned. Police officers urged the remaining protesters to leave, saying they had succeeded in drawing attention. Some activists were arrested, although an exact tally was not immediately available. A Yale spokeswoman said that the Yale police issued 42 misdemeanor summonses for disorderly conduct. Caleb Schwartz, a senior at Harvard, was among those who was issued a summons for running onto the field.

“It felt really good because we know that people support divestment but now we know that people will take extra action to support this cause,” he said. “It was energetic. It was both scary and exhilarating.”

Supporters of the demonstration said they knew firsthand about the effects of climate change.

“My country is on fire right now,” Akio Ho, a student at Yale said, referring to Australia. “Unprecedented wildfires are ripping through homes right now. Climate change and the climate crisis is an extremely urgent problem.”

Harvard has declined to divest for years. Yale has made some divestment pledges but got into trouble with its activists over a $122 million investment in a fracking-related company, Antero; after a protest in December, the school dropped much of that investment.

The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started small at schools like Swarthmore around 2011, is now a global movement with commitments from more than a thousand organizations and tens of thousands of individuals controlling some $8.8 trillion in combined assets.

At the end of last year, Lawrence Bacow, the president of Harvard, told The Harvard Crimson that there were more effective ways to “bring about meaningful change” than divestment.

In a statement Saturday, Harvard said its climate action plan “explicitly recognizes what the science has made clear: The world must move quickly to end its use of fossil fuels.”

“While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it,” the statement continued. “Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions.”

Karen Peart, a Yale spokeswoman, said, referring to the protest, that the university stood “firmly for the right to free expression” but added that it was “regrettable that the orchestrated protest came during a time when fellow students were participating in a collegiate career-defining contest and an annual tradition when thousands gather from around the world to enjoy and celebrate the storied traditions of both football programs and universities.”

This is not the first public action taken against Ivy League endowments. In September, hundreds of students and other participants marched through Yale calling for divestment.

The game on Saturday, which Yale won, 50-43, in two overtimes with a dramatic comeback, was the latest in one of the oldest rivalries in college sports, dating to 1875. When the protest disrupted the game at halftime, Harvard led 15-3.

The rivalry between two schools known more for their academics regularly draws sellout crowds to the Yale Bowl and Harvard Stadium on the schools’ campuses.

Last year, the game was held at Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, and Harvard won 45-27.