Learning From Great Sports Pranks

Later this week, Harvard and Yale will face off in their annual football showdown. “The Game,” as fans have called the competition for decades, began in 1875, before modern rules existed and has been played nearly every year since. As you might imagine, there have been many memorable games over the past 141 years.

The 1894 Game, known as the “The Bloodbath in Hampden Park,” is remembered for its list of injuries which included a broken leg, a snapped collarbone, a bleeding eye, and a collapsed nose. One player suffered a hit that left him in a coma. The public outcry at the violence led to a suspension of the competition for two years.

One of the more famous matches occurred in 1968, when, with only a few minutes remaining, Harvard came back from a 16 point deficit to tie the game. (Incidentally, the actor Tommy Lee Jones was playing for Harvard as an offensive guard at the time.) That game was immortalized in the 2008 documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Matches like those are legendary, but the richest tradition of The Game might just be the pranks. One of the most famous ones occurred in 1982. Interestingly enough, the perpetrator was not from Harvard or Yale. During the second quarter, a large balloon emerged from the field, hovered, and popped. It had “MIT” written all over it—literally. MIT students had rigged the balloon using freon and a vacuum cleaner motor, buried it in the field, and triggered it from the electrical room to inflate.

That wasn’t the only time MIT students pranked the Game. At the 1990 Game, they launched a rocket from the 0-yard line that draped a large “MIT” banner over the goal post. At the 2006 game, MIT students poked fun at Harvard by altering a part of the scoreboard at Harvard stadium. Specifically, they changed the Harvard crests, which normally read “VE-RI-TAS”—“truth” in Latin—to read “HU-GE-EGO.”

All the fun isn’t reserved for MIT students. As a Yalie, I’m particularly proud of a prank orchestrated by Yale students during the 2004 Game. A group of them, pretending to represent the “Harvard Pep Squad,” passed out pieces of construction paper to unsuspecting Harvard fans. Thinking they carried a pro-Harvard message, they raised them up when instructed. Unbeknownst to them, they spelled out “WE SUCK.”

The Harvard-Yale Game shenanigans are part of a long, grand tradition of pranks played during athletic competitions.  In a 1982 college football game between Stanford and the University of California, Cal achieved a remarkable come-from-behind victory. With only seconds left, the Bears threw five laterals in one play and delivered the ball into the end zone. The Cal player had to swerve through the Stanford band, which had stormed the field, thinking its team had won. It was such an impressive maneuver that fans came to call it “The Play.”

The next week, however, Cal fans woke up to a story in their school newspaper that the play had been ruled incomplete, and that Stanford had won. The catch: it was all a sham. Stanford students had distributed fake editions of The Daily Californian with the phony story, even including an altered photo a ref seeming to call off the play.

And it’s not just collegiate sports that attract jokesters. In 1985, Sports Illustratedbroke a story about a promising young pitcher named Sidd Finch who was being evaluated by the Mets. The article described Finch as “a 28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic” who could throw a ball 168 miles per hour—the fastest ever recorded, by far. Finch, the article noted, was a Harvard dropout who had trained in Tibet and one day walked up to a Mets minor league coach muttering “I have learned the art of the pitch.”

According to journalist George Plimpton, the Mets were evaluating this strange talent with great secrecy. Plimpton’s piece was published on April 1st, 1985. The 6,000 words profile, was, of course, an elaborate prank. When it was published, though, not everyone got the joke. According to the New York Times, “Two major league general managers called the new commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, to ask how Finch’s opponents could even stand at the plate safely against a fastball like that,” and “The St. Petersburg Times sent a reporter to find Finch.”

The list of great sports pranks is practically endless. In the 1990s, the baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. would make bets with his manager, Lou Piniella. Owing him steak dinner, Griffey Jr. determined to settle his debt in the most inconvenient way possible. He had a 1200 pound cow brought into Piniella’s office!

Although likely apocryphal, rumor has it that an MIT student once spent a summer feeding pigeons in Harvard’s football stadium while blowing a whistle. During one of the season’s competetions, hundreds of pigeons apparently flocked to the ref and disrupted the game’s flow. True or not, the concept would surely make Pavlov proud!

Because of this strong prank tradition, many sports fans know that what’s happening off the field can be just as interesting as the match itself. Looking broadly, with a skeptical eye, can help us rapidly identify unexpected developments and the messages they transmit. It’s also important to appreciate improbable and unanticipated events emerging from the proverbial left field. In fact, remembering to look beyond the borders of the game is a rule of thumb that can serve us well in most areas of life.