Harvard and Yale “agree to disagree,” leaving outcome of their 151st crew race forever in limbo

Yale celebrated what they think was a win over Harvard. (Sean D. Elliott/The New London Day/AP)

The term “agree to disagree” … is a phrase … referring to the resolution of a conflict … whereby all parties tolerate but do not accept the opposing position(s). It generally occurs when all sides recognize that further conflict would be unnecessary, ineffective or otherwise undesirable. They may also remain on amicable terms while continuing to disagree about the unresolved issues.

—-from Wikipedia

An investigative report by Joel Alderman

Harvard and Yale have probably accounted for more scholars, diplomats, politicians, medical and legal practitioners, industry and business leaders, scientists, researchers and other brilliant minds than any two universities in the country, maybe even in the world. That makes it all the more remarkable that an elite committee composed of representatives from each of those esteemed educational institutions could not agree on a relatively simple thing — the outcome of their 151st annual (with a few exceptions) crew race on Sunday, June 12, 2016, on the Thames River in New London.

Many Yale people feel the Bulldogs had won it after, through no fault of its own, Harvard’s boat was swamped shortly after getting underway from beneath the Gold Star Bridge, over which I-95 passes. By the quarter-mile marker of the scheduled four mile race, the Crimson’s oarsmen were pulled out of the river along with its water-filled boat, and Yale, after a brief pause, continued upstream toward Bartlett’s Cove and across the finish line, unchallenged by its opponent.

If it were declared a completed race, which is what the unresolved debate is all about, Yale’s time of 30:41 minutes would be the slowest in the history of the regatta. This is in marked contrast to 2015 when the Bulldogs won in a clocking of 18.35.8, a record for the 151 races in the series, 138 of which were on the Thames.

Photo copyright: Stephen Fritzer/Yale Athletics
Photo copyright: Stephen Fritzer/Yale Athletics

How it happened

The opening minutes of the most recent renewal of the regatta were described this way by row2k.com, a website devoted to the sport:

“Both crews started aggressively into the chop, with Yale getting the better of it early. With both teams running pumps in their hulls (Harvard with three, Yale with eight), both crews contended well with the rough water until just before the first half-mile marker, where the water level in the Harvard crew made any further rowing impossible and the shell began to sink. At this point, the referee raised the red flag to stop the race as the launches began to pull the Harvard athletes out of the water.”

Yale, which was ahead by a boat length at the time, went on to finish the race, and celebrated an apparent victory. It wasn’t until at least two hours later when it was informed that the referee had declared it a non-race.

“It got to the point where it was just way too much,” Conor Harrity, a member of the Harvard crew, told the Boston Globe. “There’s a little bit of panic. I think we tried to keep focused as best we could, but by the half-mile we were done.”

Charley Butt
Harvard head coach Charley Butt. (Photo: Harvard Athletics)

Harvard coach wanted to have the race resumed

Harvard’s heavyweight coach, Charley Butt, originally said he hoped the race could be resumed at the position of the shells when the red flag went up. He pointed out that the boats “didn’t even go an eighth of the (full) distance.”

Butt, relying on the red flag waived by the referee, and his initial ruling that it was a non-race, said, “we’re going to think of this as just a major disappointment…that somehow we couldn’t manage to get this iconic event to go down as it should have.”

Committee has “agreed to disagree”

According to Yale coach Steve Gladstone, the members of the review body, after going at it for several weeks, have now figuratively and literally thrown up their hands and concluded only that they have “agreed to disagree,” or words to that effect.

No rules to fall back on

The fiasco has exposed a glaring deficiency in the conduct of a great and historical college sports event. Although there are extensive rules covering multi-boat regattas, there are precious few for when just these two shells go at each other, a sad reflection on the oldest collegiate athletic competition in America, which had its inception in the year 1852.

What happened this past June on the Thames in New London exposed the lack of some basic rules and procedures. Three of them that came to light are (1) how far need the boats go to qualify as a race; (2) whether the actions and decisions of a referee can be appealed and, (3) if so, to whom.

It took 164 years for these and other procedural omissions to become relevant. But now, in 2016, they most certainly are.

Steve Gladstone1
Gladstone, regarded as one of the top coaches in the sport, believes Yale should have been declared the winner. (Photo courtesy: Yale Sports Publicity)

Gladstone feels Yale was victorious

Gladstone, Yale’s veteran and internationally respected coach, pointed out that it is standard protocol in other regattas for a boat to continue to race, even if another one sinks. In that case it is determined that the crew that completed the course, even though it may be the only one left, is declared the winner. Therefore, he claims, Yale should be awarded the victory.

“It wasn’t our doing that the Harvard boat swamped,” said Gladstone. “Why should we have been penalized because of Harvard’s misfortune? That is the lingering question in my mind, and it has not been answered, at least to my satisfaction,” he emphasized.

He went on to point out that “there are no specific rules for Yale-Harvard races covering such a situation. We had a fast crew and feel it was unfortunate that on that day we were unable to demonstrate it.”

Despite lacking authority to allow a review and a process for an appeal, referee Dug Stowe referred the matter of the final outcome to be decided by the participants themselves through a specially convened committee. In effect, he was potentially letting his own decision be overturned, if the committee so decided. That’s where things got testy.

Background to a disaster

To appreciate what happened it is necessary to go back to before the race began.

During a mid-week luncheon, while taking cognizance of long-term weather forecasts, “we decided that each boat could be equipped with pumps. The coaches, officials and the oarsmen themselves were aware that there would be a three-day blow and not an ordinary sea breeze,” Gladstone said.

On the day of the race there was a 25-mile an hour headwind, and the crews were given the option of delaying or postponing the start to the next day. But, in view of the ominous extended forecast, “our backs were up against the wall and we both agreed to go ahead with it,” he explained.

“Everybody, especially the student-athletes, had lives and schedules to fulfill, and that’s what drove the race. So the risk was assumed by all of us.”

For Harvard, its assumption of the risk turned out to be the wrong decision, while Yale was fortunate to complete the course under the same rough conditions. Some Yale adherents claim that Harvard is using the sinking of its shell to its advantage by following the referee’s lead and insisting it became a “non-race.”

Oxford-Cambridge declares a winner when this happens

Gladstone cites the annual Oxford-Cambridge race on the original Thames River in London, England, which is the model and probably the inspiration for the Yale-Harvard competition. Known affectionately as merely “The Boat Race,” it is a tradition that goes back to 1829, which was twelve years before the Bulldogs and the Crimson first competed against each other.

On several occasions either the Oxford or Cambridge crew has met with disaster such as befell Harvard this year. In those cases, the opposing boat was always declared the winner, despite being the only one to cross the finish line.

That’s the closest there is to a precedent for what happened in New London on America’s Thames River. But Harvard’s committee members did not choose to apply the British custom, which is their prerogative. Yale people, on the other hand, called for the Oxford-Cambridge rule to be followed in view of the fact that there is nothing similar covering the Y-H regatta.

The Committee could not decide

Since June 12th and over a period of several weeks, the issue has gone back and forth in committee, but with no conclusion being achieved.

Although the Yale coach’s initial response was not to second-guess the referee’s decision to stop the race “for safety reasons,” he has since questioned why the referee waved a red flag in the first place, when nobody was in physical danger. There were several launches following the shells and the rowers were quickly picked up out of the water. In fact, he said, he personally helped two of them onto the coaches’ launch.

Gladstone justified his crew continuing to row the remainder of the full four miles since the oarsmen had to get back on land. “We could not stay out there, in those conditions, and going upstream to the finish line would also take us closer to our boathouse.”

He believed that “it was clear the Harvard boat would take a considerable amount of time, perhaps an hour-plus, before it would be able to resume the race. The conditions were not getting any better and it was also getting darker.”

The referee finally relented

Dug Stowe, the referee, deferred to Yale and Harvard to seek a solution, even though he was not required to have them do so. Unfortunately, despite trying, the best they could do was to agree that they could not agree.

So the 2016 race has gone down differently in separate history books in New Haven and Cambridge. In Yale’s history books it was a win. In Harvard’s, it never happened!

Another way to consider this, and one of the best lines we’ve seen, is:

Yale beats Harvard, 8 pumps to 3.

To which let’s add: if there was any winner that both sides could reluctantly accept, it was Mother Nature.

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