The best college football rivalries aren’t just games, they’re events. When Alabama meets Auburn, it’s called the Iron Bowl. When Texas and Oklahoma go to Dallas each year, it’s the Red River Showdown.
But when the Harvard Crimson and Yale Bulldogs play, it’s simply called “The Game.” The two teams have been playing since 1875. They met at a neutral site when the old rivals played Saturday at Fenway Park, which has hosted a number of gridiron events recently.
Speaking at his team's last practice before the contest, Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said the stakes were simple.
“It’s all about pride," Murphy said. "Pride in our program, pride in our team, and pride in our school.”
But just last month, in a windowless courtroom in the Moakley Courthouse, the role of athletics in the student admissions process of selective schools like Harvard and Yale — and how favorably athletic applicants are viewed — was brought into question.
A group called Students for Fair Admissions has sued Harvard, saying the university discriminates against Asian-American applicants. During the three-week trial, some of Harvard's admissions practices came to light, including how athletes are given a significant advantage in the admissions process.
According to Harvard's own data, 83 percent of athletes with high academic ratings are accepted. That's compared to only 16 percent for non-athletes.
The defense Harvard presented was that athletics helps to build a community at an academic institution. Murphy said athletics also contribute to the school's diversity.
"I think that athletics is just one piece of it," he said. "And it's one piece of the incredible diversity that Harvard has."
Towards the end of the trial, Harvard called on Ruth Simmons, the former president at Brown and the first black president of an Ivy League school.
Simmons said that the Ivy League is exactly what it sounds like: an athletic league. When she was at Brown, Simmons said, it was a "holiday” when the Bears took down the Crimson.
On game day, the atmosphere on Jersey Street as Harvard and Yale fans waited for kickoff certainly felt like a holiday. Students and alums decked out in crimson and blue scarves, hats and hoodies flooded the famous walkway outside Fenway.
Even though it wasn’t in Harvard Stadium, it was technically a home game for the Crimson. As fans trickled into their seats, the schools' bands battled it out before coming together to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There was even a fly-over by two military jets.
Andy Scala, who graduated from Yale in 1976, said even if the Bulldogs aren’t in contention to play for an Ivy League title, if they beat the Crimson, it’s a good year.
As with Harvard’s coach, The Game came down to a simple concept for Scala: pride.
“Not just sports, but even on the academic side," Scala said. "You know, when people go out into the world 20 years after they graduate [and are asked], 'Where did you go to school?', there’s a lot of pride to say Yale-Harvard back and forth.”
Shannon and John Errico, who graduated from Yale in 2008, have gone to The Game every year since they left campus. They stood outside Gate D with “Yale” painted on their faces in blue.
Shannon says The Game helps create a sense of belonging as the holidays start.
“Harvard-Yale always feels like a coming home for me that precedes Thanksgiving and then the holiday season," she said.
As soon as the clock struck zero, Harvard players stampeded to the student section in the right-field bleachers to celebrate with their frenzied classmates.
After the Crimson beat their rivals in front of nearly 35,000 fans at Fenway, senior captain Zach Miller had a hard time describing his emotions.
"I don't think words can describe how happy and how ecstatic our team is," Miller said. "Just to go out like this, it's awesome. And I can't say anything more than that. It's just amazing."
Harvard and Yale aren’t schools where football dominates the campus conversation year-round. But once a year, a game is all that matters.
As important as this game may be, though, how selective schools recruit the athletes who play in it remains under legal scrutiny. A verdict in the Harvard trial is expected early next year. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into Yale’s admissions practices.