How college football navigated the Spanish flu

by Zach Bigalke

In the age of coronavirus, what can we learn from 1918? Let’s look at how the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic impacted college football that year.

As the novel coronavirus spreads its way around the globe, more people continue to self-quarantine in hopes of flattening the curve of transmission in their respective countries. People are engaging less in public, maintaining social distancing, and governments are stepping in to assist populations that have been forced home from work in the interest of public health.

Part of the move to slow the advance of the coronavirus has been the cancellation of huge sporting events. March Madness ended in March sadness when the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The XFL canceled its first season after a reboot, and the MLS postponed games in its recently-started season. The NHL and NBA both suspended their campaigns with no guarantee that they might return to crown a champion in 2020.

That’s just in the United States. Fans in other countries are dealing with the subsequent closure of soccer and all other sports around the globe. At a point when people are home more than ever, the shutdown of sports has created a massive void within our society.

What we must all realize right now, though, is that things are going to become far more chaotic before we ever come back to some semblance of normalcy…

What we must remember is that this is not the first time a pandemic has impacted the course of a college football season. When the Spanish flu — named not because it originated in Spain, but rather because neutral Spain was the first government to report honestly on the transmission of the virus — returned to the American populace in 1918, the college football season was thrown into a tailspin.

With that in mind, how might the novel coronavirus coursing through the country impact the 2020 college football season? Let’s look back at 1918 to get a better understanding of why Kirshner and others are positing the theory that next season will be anything but business as usual.

The background of the Spanish flu in the United States

The first known case of the Spanish flu in the United States appeared in Kansas in January 1918. By March, when an infected cook at Fort Riley reported for duty, the virus found a population in close quarters through which it could spread rapidly. Within days of the cook’s return to base, more than 500 of the troops training at the military facility came down with the illness.

By mid-March, the virus was already spreading across the map. On March 11, a case was confirmed in Queens, New York, more than 1300 miles from Fort Riley. At a point in medical history when we collectively knew far less about viral transmission than we do in the 21st century, the failure to take isolation measures to mitigate the spread of the illness allowed Spanish flu to proliferate.

Over the summer, the rate of transmission died down. It was a short-lived reprieve that allowed the American people to drop their guard just enough for the Spanish flu to return. By August, it was beginning to ramp up its sweep through the country, reappearing in a more virulent strain in Boston.

All facets of society were disrupted in the process. Even as war raged on in Europe through November, life was thrown into utter chaos. As people are experiencing now with college basketball and other sports, in 1918 college football was not immune to the disruptions caused by Spanish flu.

The impacts of the Spanish flu on college football

By the start of the 1918 college football season in October, cases of Spanish flu were on the rise once again throughout the United States. Football programs across the country were forced to truncate their schedules as players fell ill, practices were canceled, and travel was decreased as much as possible.

The season was nearly killed before the Spanish flu even reappeared. With World War I in its fourth year of combat operations, the U.S. military was preparing for a major offensive in early 1919. The War Department requested a reevaluation of the football schedule, but supporters lobbied that the physical benefits of athletic training were compatible with the schedule of military training.

As a result, football teams were back to the gridiron to practice for the 1918 season when the Spanish flu returned to American soil. Programs were forced to deal with illnesses to their players and to opponents’ rosters. Games were canceled from the outset, including a key contest between the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh in early October.

By the end of the season, nearly 20 percent of all major football teams had shuttered their programs for the season. The Missouri Valley Conference, the forerunner to the Big 8 and Big 12, closed down completely as all seven of its member schools decided not to play football in the midst of the pandemic. In total, 16 of the 88 major programs of the period were sidelined by the Spanish flu.

The season also resulted in truncated schedules. In 1917, the median college football season lasted eight games. A year later, teams cut their schedules nearly in half as teams played on average five games that season. Where Georgia Tech went 9-0-0 to win the 1917 national championship, Michigan went just 5-0-0 and Pitt 4-1-0 as the Wolverines and Panthers split the spoils.

What can 1918 tell us about how 2020 might play out on the field?

As we saw with the Spanish flu, it wasn’t the first period of transmission at the beginning of 1918 but rather the second wave that proved most detrimental. In October 1918 alone, there were 195,000 deaths from the Spanish flu just in the United States. As college football was just getting back into its annual swing, hundreds of thousands of people were dying across the country.

In the face of the pandemic, college football could not play on as usual. Spring practices have already been canceled in the United States, as campuses learn from the past and transition to remote delivery of the curriculum. While preseason practices this summer will likely go on at this point, there is a real risk that the coronavirus will return in the autumn just as the Spanish flu did in 1918.

Depending on when the coronavirus returns, football fans might experience a tragedy akin to the cancellation of March Madness. What would college football do if campuses were shuttered in the week leading up to conference championship games? Prepare now for the possibility that we could revert back to the conventions of the 1950s and name a national champion through the wire-service polls without the benefit of conference titles or bowl victories to settle the dust.

Next: [PODCAST] How coronavirus could impact the 2020 season

Ultimately, society has been upturned by the coronavirus, just as it was a century earlier by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. College football is in no way immune to the end of business as usual.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.