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Lessons learned from the Spanish flu-altered 1918 college football season

Pasadena officials put quarantine ordinances in place one hour after Stanford-USC kicked off, so there is no shame

University Of Southern California Trojans Football

Almost every commercial these days basically follows the same format. In the words of The New York Times national politics reporter Astead Herndon, they all say: “now more than ever, in these unprecedented times, stronger united, alone together, buy a mazda.”

Except the ones that use the word “unprecedented” are wrong. Sure, most of us haven’t experienced a worldwide pandemic like this, but our country, our industries and the centenarians among us have.

The 2020 college football season, assuming there is one, won’t be the first to be played amid nationwide restrictions due to disease. The 1918 season was delayed, shortened, and in some cases canceled, due to the Spanish flu.

While no one knows what’s going to happen this fall, maybe we can learn something about the near future by looking at our distant past.

There’s no denying how tough the last few months have been. From those who have experienced the greatest loss – the loss of the life of a friend or loved one – to smaller, but still very real, impacts like the inability to exercise like usual, social isolation or the search for professional fulfillment after getting furloughed, we’ve all had to adjust, adapt and persevere.

But in some ways, we’re arguably lucky compared to those who lived through the fall and winter of 1918.

Forget trying to quarantine with no Netflix, no Twitter, no Xbox, no Zoom, no Postmates, etc., because we wouldn’t last a week in quarantine in 1918, let alone seven, but not only was the Influenza rampant back then, but the first World War was still raging.

The war was the other, and arguably just as significant, lens through which the 1918 college football season must be viewed.

Football + World War I was the living embodiment of this meme, and probably the start of all of the war metaphors in our football discourse, as military organizations fielded football teams that fall.

Let’s set up the 1918 college football season, or what was supposed to be the 1918 season.

From Walter Camp (yes, that Walter Camp):

“And now we have already gone through one great athletic season under war conditions. We have had a chance to see how it all works out. The majority of colleges played their schedules. Yale, Harvard and Princeton did not. This gave us a chance to see how affairs developed both at the colleges which ‘carried on’ and those which canceled. Perhaps no decision can be reached as to the wisdom of one course of the other. At any rate, neither side is ready to say the other was right and they were wrong. But it has shown us that, with the influx of all the cantonment and station players, we need never fear that sport is on the wane...A great deal has been said about the football season of 1917 being like the play of ‘Hamlet,’ with the omission of Hamlet. But, as matters progressed it was very evident that this fall would see more football played than in any other year for a long time.”

Narrator: Well, actually...

That excerpt from Camp was published in The San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 6, 1918 and almost nine months to the day later, the start of the college football season was being delayed. Camp’s January forecast that “this fall would see more football played than in any other year for a long time” couldn’t have been more wrong.

Northwestern’s season opener against Lake Forest College on Oct. 5 was canceled the day before kickoff “because of the registration in the students’ army training corps and the spread of influenza,” according to the Great Falls Tribune. The same day, Big Ten schedules were revised as the Northwestern-Ohio State game was pushed back from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9 and the Chicago-Minnesota contest was rescheduled from Oct. 12 to the week of Thanksgiving.

By the way, newspapers at the time called the conference the “Big Ten,” with the quotes included. That’s how long ago this was.

The Wildcats’ season opener being canceled on a one-day notice wasn’t unique, either. “Quarantines against influenza yesterday shot the intercollegiate and service football schedule to pieces,” reported the New York Herald. “In many cases college elevens made trips only to be ordered home at once. The biggest game of the day, that scheduled between the University of Pittsburg and the Great Lakes Naval Station eleven, was called off because of the influenza quarantine.”

Lesson: Just because a game is scheduled doesn’t mean it has to be played if it’s unsafe.

If the biggest Week 1 game in 1918, Pittsburgh vs. Great Lakes Naval Station, was canceled on Friday, the eve of the season, that’s the equivalent of one of 2020’s big Week 1 games like Alabama-USC, Michigan-Washington or P̶u̶r̶d̶u̶e̶-̶N̶e̶b̶r̶a̶s̶k̶a̶ getting canceled on Sept. 4.

Sunk costs for airfare or hotel blocks shouldn’t be put on one side of the scale, across from human life, if that life is believed to potentially be at risk. Whatever testing and contact tracing plans are put in place by college football programs this fall, and a player, coach or staffer (or several) inevitably tests positive the week of a game, just remember that schools punted on games one day before kickoff in 1918.

Some schools didn’t start the 1918 season until late November. Stanford and USC met on Nov. 23 in Pasadena, which marked the Trojans’ season opener, while the Cardinal had already played two games. “Intersectional bouts of this kind ordinarily are not used to pry open the lid on the football season,” wrote William Henry of The Los Angeles Times, “but the malignant ‘flu’ bug and pestiferous closing ordinance have served to lop off the preliminaries of our moleskin calendar and leave nothing but the big games.”

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to cut the fat from the football season.

While the quality of teams involved in a football game don’t really matter for a lot of fans who will watch just about any game that’s televised (see: MACtion, Thursday Night Football, Week 1 of the XFL’s reboot drawing a 3.1 TV rating, etc.), a streamlined college football season with “nothing but the big games” could make the best of a bad situation, especially if local health officials determine it’s unsafe for the season to start on time and when athletic department expenses are under a more intense microscope than ever before.

As much fun as it is to watch Minnesota nearly lose to Group of Five opponents week after week, it’s not as much fun to see that Alabama is ahead 21-0 by the time you pull your buffalo chicken dip out of the oven and sit down on the couch seven minutes into the game.

While the goal of every person with a vested interest in college football is seeing the season played in full, ideally with fans in attendance, if the solution to having a college football season is playing only conference games or holding an abbreviated non-conference schedule so that a few marquee matchups can be played and so that Group of Five schools have the chance to cash a six or seven-figure check for a body bag game, then so be it. It’s been done before.

By the way, The Los Angeles Times writer Henry also threw shade at L.A. officials, noting prior to the Stanford-USC game that “Pasadena is chosen as the battleground because in that fair city health authorities do not corrup (sic) nor ‘flu’ germs destroy.”

Lesson: No single person is in charge of college football and if schools/conferences operate on different schedules, you’ll be sure to hear about it from the ones that miss out on practice time, games and revenue.

Can you imagine if, hypothetically, the SEC is ready to kick off the college football season in Week 1 on Sept. 5 but the Pac-12 is waiting until all of its schools get permission to resume in-person athletic activities in October? Swap in any state, conference or school, and the party that has to wait to play football is going to voice its concern.

In all likelihood that concern will be about a competitive disadvantage and not a health or safety concern, at which point gaining a little perspective wouldn’t hurt.

Let’s stay in Pasadena, where the city’s officials learned the hard way about the cost of lifting quarantine measures too soon. “After a brief respite from the influenza ban, during which time there has been an alarming spread of the malady in Pasadena, the City Commission tonight took initial steps to re-enact the ordinance repealed about ten days ago,” reported The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 23, 1918.

A meeting was held at the local YMCA and attended by city health officers, ministers and undertakers. The church representatives unanimously voted to call off Sunday services after hearing about the return of the spread of influenza. The city passed a vote and ordinances were set to return Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. local time but the Stanford-USC game was scheduled to kick off at 3 p.m., meaning the game could be played.

“However, some citizens are making protests against the playing of the game, saying it will bring people here from throughout the county and may spread the influenza,” reported The Los Angeles Times. “Dr. Robert Freeman and Dr. Daniel Fox, pastors of two of the largest churches in the city, came out with statements today protesting against the game.”

Lesson(s): We’ll only know if health guidelines were removed too soon, not too late, and football might conveniently find a safe space to continue in the fine print.

It’s pretty transparent as to what likely happened behind closed doors at the local YMCA in Pasadena when you read that the influenza ordinances would return one hour after kickoff between Stanford and USC. Basically, the officials of the city of Pasadena were saying it was too unsafe for their citizens to continue living as freely as they had been in an ordinance-free world, but it was justsafeenough to squeeze in a big rivalry game at the 11th hour.

It shouldn’t be surprising that football was granted some exceptions and leniency compared to other, similar activities. In October 1918, the Buffalo Evening News reported, “The influenza epidemic has now shut off all branches of fall sport except football, and in some instances this strenuous outdoor game has been deferred. In Buffalo not one form of indoor amusement is allowed if there are more than 10 participants and no spectators, so probably a few select pedro, pinochle parties and perhaps poker parties may escape the ban.”

Like the influential Pasadena pastors who protested, Doctors Freeman and Fox, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few neutral third-party community leaders speak out against the resumption of sports this fall if there’s still a considerable level of risk involved.

There were enough hurdles in the 1918 college football season – from war, influenza, transportation restrictions, etc. that some schools played less than half of their schedule.

In 1918, the two schools with a claim to the national championship, Michigan and Pitt, went 5-0 and 4-1, respectively, marking the fewest wins by a national champion since Yale went 5-0-1 in 1881. Big Ten schools played four, five, six, eight, nine or 11 games in 1918. Chicago played a conference-high five Big Ten games, losing all five, while IU didn’t play a single league game, but still finished in eighth thanks to Chicago and Ohio State (0-3 Big Ten).

Lesson: There may not be uniformity, and that’s OK.

Look, beggars can’t be choosers. As exhausting as it gets listening to ACC or Big Ten fans complain about the SEC’s eight-game league schedule or fans of a Big Ten West school complain about their team’s schedule when they happen to face Ohio State and Michigan in the same season once every six years, I can’t even imagine what it’d be like if schools in different conferences, let alone the same conference, play a different number of games in 2020.

I’d rather permanently exchange my iPhone for a Firefly (one of those phones for kids who are 12 and under that has preset buttons to call Mom, Dad and 9-1-1) than have to scroll through Twitter to see how fans and media react to the College Football Playoff selection committee ranking Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC) ahead of Oregon (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12), if conferences and schools play different schedules this fall.

But that might be part of the deal. Football, even a season with a conference-only schedule or 30-percent stadium capacities or no tailgating outside the stadium, is better than no football. Concessions will likely have to be made.

But if another pandemic-altered season results in another IU finish ahead of Ohio State in the Big Ten standings, then there will be some things that just aren’t worth complaining about.