What will sports look like when they return? Photo showing 1918 pandemic is murky guide for college football amid COVID-19 outbreak

Coronavirus

This undated photo provided by Georgia Tech alumnus Andy McNeil shows a Georgia Tech home game during the 1918 college football season. The photo was taken by Georgia Tech student Thomas Carter, who would receive a degree in Mechanical Engineering. The 102-year-old photo could provide a snapshot of sports once live games resume: Fans packed in a campus stadium in the midst of a pandemic wearing masks with a smidge of social distance between them on concrete seats. (Thomas Carter via AP)

ATLANTA, Ga. (AP/WJW) — A century ago, college sports in the United States was hit hard by the Spanish flu pandemic. Games were canceled and some schools were forced to call off their seasons.

The Georgia Tech alumni Twitter feed posted photos from Grant Field in 1918 stating that even though the Spanish Flu outbreak killed more than 675,000 people, Georgia Tech played almost an entire season that year. Led by Coach John Heisman, the Golden Tornadoes played six games that year.

According to the Associated Press, once fans were allowed to return to stadiums, football was stronger than ever.

Jeremy Swick, a historian at the College Football Hall of Fame, says those tough times in 1918 and 1919 helped set the stage for a decade of growth by college football in the Roaring ’20s.

“That’s really what started the big boom of college football in the 1920s,” Swick told the news outlet. “People were ready. They were back from war. They wanted to play football again. There weren’t as many restrictions about going out. You could enroll back in school pretty easily. You see a great level of talent come back into the atmosphere. There’s new money. It started to get to the roar of the Roaring ’20s and that’s when you see the stadiums arm race. Who can build the biggest and baddest stadium?”

Currently, as the nation battles the coronavirus, athletic leaders are discussing how school sports can be conducted safely.

Georgia Tech history professor Johnny Smith also says that people will likely be hesitant to return to the stands and believes the Spanish Flu offers many lessons to be learned about social distancing.

“I think there are parallels in what we can learn from 1918 in terms of how we respond to a pandemic,” Smith told the Associated Press. “The cities that were hesitant and didn’t impose closure orders as quickly had far more fatalities. I think the lesson we can draw in general from 1918 about how to respond to a pandemic is that closure orders and social distancing is effective.”

Smith also predicts many fans will choose not to attend sporting events until there is a “proven vaccine.”

“I think generally people are going to be more hesitant to return to stadiums today,” he explained. “I think there will be a certain segment of the population that is more concerned about a second wave. That’s another lesson to keep in mind from 1918.”

The professor also argues that he doesn’t believe most Americans would take safety precautions, such as wearing masks, if they were permitted to attend events.

“I think when we look back on this idea of people wearing masks to attend a football game and raise the question today, would people do that? I’m not sure that people would,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, schools are working to develop plans that allow sports, specifically college football, to be played this fall. NCAA officials and college football commissioners did previously say, however, that sports cannot be played this fall if campuses are not open.

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