Book Review: When Harvard "Beat" Yale, 29-29

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It’s probably difficult for many younger readers to fathom, but as recently as the 1970s it wasn’t uncommon for an Ivy League football team to be ranked in what was then the “Top 20.” While few associated the then Division 1 conference with the SEC, the Ivy League could certainly claim good teams. And it produced NFL talent.

As George Howe Colt notes in his new book The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America In 1968, fifty-one Ivy League players “have gone on to the NFL” since 1970. Not bad. 

As for Colt’s book, it’s a bet that most readers will find it highly interesting. While the author arguably erred in making his story endlessly political, it can be said in his defense that everything is political nowadays. It says here that the latter is a direct result of Democrats and Republicans running roughshod over a Constitution that plainly calls for a limited federal government in concert with activist (or not-so-activist depending on one’s policy bliss) city and state governments, but that’s for another column.

For now, Colt’s The Game will be reviewed through the prism of economics. Life most definitely instructs about matters economic, and as The Game is about the lives of those who participated in a legendary football game, it instructs. But before getting into economic lessons, “The Game” that Colt refers to is the annual football matchup between Harvard and Yale. More specifically, his book is about the most famous tie in the history of college football (however much Michigan State and Notre Dame fans might disagree): the 1968 edition of Yale vs. Harvard. Though Yale was clearly the better team with top-level talent of the Brian Dowling (QB) and Calvin Hill (HB) variety, and though the Bulldogs dominated the first 56 minutes of play, Harvard inexplicably managed to claw back to a tie at game’s end.

“Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” was the headline in the Harvard Crimson. The tie was a win for undefeated, but overmatched Harvard, and plainly a loss for an undefeated and very talented Yale football team. At the same time, the tie proved genius for both teams when it’s remembered that few would be talking about, watching documentaries about (in 2008 a documentary, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, was released), or in this case, reading about a game that pitted #16 Yale (at one point ranked above Nebraska and Alabama) against unranked Harvard. Arguably the cruelest fate in sports has made for a legend that won’t die. Thank goodness it hasn’t as Colt has written something that college football fans will treasure, and that those simply interested in people will similarly enjoy.

Back to economics, it’s probably best to start with Harvard’s head coach, John Yovicsin. Colt writes that Yovicsin was the Steelton, PA-raised son of “a welder who left Serbia when he was seventeen,” and who “had steered his son toward sports as a way out of the mills.” Somewhat similarly, Baltimore-raised Calvin Hill’s father Henry would “’take me over to the Bethlehem Steel plant to see guys getting out of work, guys who were dog-tired or dirty and gritty’” as a way of searing in his mind how important it was for him to not aim for a life of toil in factories. All of this rates mention when we remember the bipartisan excitement about factory work, and the ridiculous promises from politicians on both sides to bring back the work of the past. Truth-challenged politicians would be wise to read Colt’s book, along with S.L. Price’s thoroughly excellent Playing Through the Whistle, in order to better understand just how adamant those who actually worked in the factories and mills were about ensuring that their offspring would not. The worship of the work of the past is so trite, so naïve, not to mention how economically crippling it would be if yesterday’s work were to return to the U.S.

And while Colt's example is not explicitly economic, economics readers are invariably interested in inflation. Though the meaning of inflation has been perverted (oddly, by economists) in modern times as being caused by too much economic growth, back in 1968 and well into the inflationary 1970s it was known to be an effect of currency devaluation. Money is just a measure, and a shrinking of the measure (as happened in the ‘70s, and also in ‘00s) frequently drives up the nominal prices of all manner of goods. Applied to The Game, Colt alerts the reader to the origins of “Ivy League grade inflation.” In this case, the devaluation of As, Bs and Cs was an effect of the Vietnam War: students who couldn’t cut it academically had higher odds of being drafted. Their professors responded by redefining grades. It seems there’s such thing as good inflation after all. More on Vietnam in a bit.

Regarding the economic backgrounds of the players, most emerged from what some would refer to as “blue collar” or “working class” circumstances. The football teams were most certainly not a reflection of the schools. As an example, the incoming class at Harvard in 1965 could claim 65 Exeter grads, and even after a big diversity push in ensuing years, the incoming Harvard class of 1968 included 49 graduates of Exeter. The happy news is that seemingly none of this mattered. That’s the nice thing about sports (and business) in the United States. No doubt certain class warriors in our midst want it to be otherwise, but Americans regularly cheer the achievers who come up from nothing. According to Colt, for the football players at elite Harvard and Yale, “your background didn’t matter.” Sports is the ultimate meritocracy. Athletes who aim to insert race into what is largely colorblind do the games they play a great disservice. 

Just the same, and perhaps more than the education-obsessed would care to admit, the education at the schools didn’t matter much either. Which makes sense. School is a retell of yesterday’s news, and for business purposes, instruction about what worked in the past. The best thing about a Harvard or Yale degree is seemingly the degree, along with the people you meet. Colt explains this through Harvard player John Ignacio: while dissecting the play Look Back in Anger with Harvard offensive lineman and future movie star Tommy Lee Jones, Ignacio was struck by how deeply Jones understood it.  Colt writes that Ignacio’s conversation with Jones was when he realized that “this was what people meant when they said that you’ll learn more at Harvard from the people you have dinner with than from your professors.” For good or bad college is all about getting in, and the connections made while in. This is also why academics need never fear being swept away in a wave of Schumpeterian “creative destruction.” No matter how worthless the knowledge and theories they impart on students may be, the value of a degree has never much been an effect of the learning (or lack thereof) that takes place while earning a degree. The true value of a college degree has long been the exclusivity associated with the diploma, and the connections made while earning the diploma.

Vassar student Meryl Streep dated Bob Levin, one of the star football players for Yale. This is worth mentioning not solely because of what Streep went on to achieve. It’s fun to retell given what Colt wrote about her: “Offstage, she was modest and unassuming. On stage, she was as self-assured as Brian Dowling on a football field.” Yes! So very important. While free trade is already brilliant for it signaling that those lucky enough to live under it have the whole world competing to give them a bargain, what makes it unrelentingly spectacular is that it puts people on the path to specialization. When we’re free to import all that we’re not good at producing, we have the greatest odds of doing what we do best for a living. Streep likely would have been lost in a agriculture-based economy, but in a diverse, import-laden economy like the one in the U.S., she was able to make a career out of acting. As prosperity grows, so grow the odds of individuals getting to do what they love. Work specialization is the source of confidence. Protectionists would be wise to keep this in mind. In calling for tariffs, they’re actually calling for the suffocation of unique talents that can’t as easily flower when a nation isn’t open to the world’s plenty.

Back to Harvard, safety Pat Conway was recruited by Notre Dame, among other schools. As mentioned previously, the Harvard and Yale teams of fifty years ago were much more stocked with talent then they are today. Interesting about Conway’s recruiting visit to South Bend is that it was his first time on an airplane. It’s just a guess, but Conway was likely in the minority for having flown. Flying was much less common then. It was what rich people did, while today it’s incredibly routine. This is of economic consequence for it existing as a reminder that what the rich enjoy exclusively is always and everywhere a window into the future. Getting right to the point, rich luxuries signal what we’ll all enjoy in the future if markets remain free. Better yet, the path for an economically average person into the rich category is to mass produce luxuries solely enjoyed by the well-to-do. Lefties who favor high taxation of the affluent should keep this mind. The taxes reduce the venture buying of those with means, thus shrinking all of our consumption options in the future, plus they reduce the investment in the entrepreneurs who will transform obscure baubles into goods and services accessible to all. Flying used to be a luxury, but now we all seemingly do it. Rest assured that if markets remain free, private flight (presently the way the superrich get around) will soon enough be a pedestrian aspect of our daily lives. Tariffs and taxes are so counterproductive, and so anti-humanity.

Were there quibbles with The Game? At times it had trite qualities. Early on Colt writes of the “first few days of preseason” at Harvard when the “grass on the field had just been cut, the lines were newly chalked, the uniforms were freshly washed. Everything seemed possible.” And then closer to book’s end Colt wrote of anti-war protests at Harvard in which “It seemed entirely possible that they could end the war, that they could change the world.” Oh please.

And there lies the main frustration with a book that was a joy to read. Colt almost seemed embarrassed to be writing a book solely about a football game (one he actually attended as his father was a Harvard grad working in the school’s development office). Because he did, he perhaps felt the need to make the book overly political, and had to at least attempt to try to find deeper meaning beyond a legendary game. For seemingly every player that Colt featured in the book, the author made sure to write about the player’s political views. Just about every single one save Conway had a dim view of the Vietnam War (Conway fought in Vietnam in the U.S.M.C., and he too wasn’t exactly enthused), and this plainly made them wiser in Colt’s eyes.

To be clear about the above, I too think Vietnam a shame. A major blunder on the part of the elites, many of whom attended Harvard or Yale. At the same time, hindsight is 20/20. The right thing back then wasn’t as clear, but apparently was clear to all the enlightened players featured by Colt. Really? Didn’t any of them, right or wrong in retrospect, think the war a noble idea? Colt plainly views the conflict as wrongheaded, but just as wrongheaded was his seeming unwillingness to find more players who thought differently. He writes of an “irrevocably divided” country and “scars” from the protests that would haunt Harvard for “decades” (gag), but was the school (and nation more broadly) really that divided? Last this reviewer checked, a Vietnam hawk beat a Vietnam hawk for the White House in 1968.

Furthermore, by Colt’s own admission the war wasn’t going to impact too many of the players as is. As students at the U.S.’s two most prestigious schools the odds were high they weren’t going to be drafted. Perhaps more to the point, Colt writes that the Harvard students who supposedly thought “they could change the world” had soon enough moved on from war protests. As Colt put it, eventually “The momentum was lost. The moment had passed.” Translated for readers, much like the students at Harvard and Yale today, those who matriculated in the late ‘60s were there to get good jobs. Students weren’t that left wing them, nor are they now. The latter will break the hearts of conservative pundits who rate endless cable television time based on the falsehood that elite schools are breeding grounds for Maoists, but the hidden campus truth for anyone who spends time on them is that the kids are pretty moderate. Or even apolitical. They’re there to get jobs. A high number of them are – gasp – Republicans. The U.S. isn’t a socialist country, and never will be. Revolutionaries on the left and alarmists on the right can both relax.

So while the politics were once again too much, they weren’t so much that The Game wasn’t fun to read. In fact it was a blast. Readers of all stripes and interests will enjoy this book a great deal, but perhaps would like it better had Colt made it more about the game instead of about the politics of a time that he arguably overstates the import of.

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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