Flu and Football Season

How bad would an outbreak of H1N1 have to get before an institution decided to cancel a big-time sporting event? Athletics departments say they have no clue, but hope prevention efforts keep them from finding out.
August 25, 2009

Big-time college athletics programs are not going to let a few cases of the H1N1 influenza virus get in the way of their home football games this fall.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its most-detailed recommendations yet concerning the containment and prevention of the virus for institutions of higher education. Among the suggestions, the report advises that colleges find ways to "increase social distances."

For example, it notes that there should ideally be "6 feet between people at most times" and that institutions should "consider whether to suspend or modify public events such as films, sporting events, or commencement ceremonies" as a result of this recommendation. College athletics officials, however, are saying it will take a much more serious directive from the government or a public health agency before they consider canceling any major sporting events.

Bob Williams, spokesman for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said the organization has not given its member institutions any recommendations about canceling sporting events because it has “not been in a situation that has warranted it.” In the event that such a situation develops, he noted, individual institutions and conferences would make their own decisions based on updated guidelines and directives from either the Department of Homeland Security or the CDC, groups that would advise states and localities about the safety of holding large public gatherings.

“There isn’t a different set of criteria developed for athletics events that would not apply to any other event involving large numbers of people,” said Williams, despite the fact that there are typically more athletic events than other large gatherings on most college campuses. “In the initial outbreak earlier this year, some schools opted to cancel or postpone their regular season games, but that is a decision between them and their respective conferences. If we find ourselves in a situation where the potential for H1N1 is widespread during an NCAA championship, we would make a determination after consulting with state and federal health officials.”

The sporting events canceled in the spring, however, were not for popular, revenue-generating sports like football or men’s basketball. In May, for example, the University of Delaware canceled a weekend of baseball, softball, track and field, and rowing contests after a baseball player was confirmed to be one of the four students at the institution with the H1N1 virus. Also that month, the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in Division II canceled its track and field championship after a possible case of the H1N1 virus was identified on the campus of Western Oregon University, where the event was to be held.

Given what public health officials now know about the H1N1 virus, some college officials said it would take a pretty serious outbreak for them to consider canceling or postponing an event like a major football game this fall.

“Personally, I don’t see any major college or professional sporting events being canceled as a result of H1N1,” said Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the University of Colorado at Boulder, where eight probable cases of the virus have recently been identified. “Right now, the virus is smaller in its impact than the seasonal influenza. I mean, every year we have the seasonal influenza, and we don’t cancel basketball games because of it. Still, if we were considering canceling an event, that decision would be made on health considerations for all and not on the revenue or size of the sport coming into play. We wouldn’t say, for example, we can cancel the lacrosse game but not the football game.”

Still, Hilliard did note that the institution might consider postponing a contest if it was discovered that a number of athletes on the opposing squad had confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus. Such a circumstance, however, is unlikely, he said, and would require a directive from the athletic conference or a public health agency.

Some institutions, however, have decided to take preemptive efforts and cancel athletic events or restrict athlete participation in them because of concern about spreading the virus. Last week, 22 football players at Tulane University missed a preseason practice because of they had “flu-like symptoms.” Also, the University of Cincinnati recently canceled a preseason soccer game because seven of its players had come down with “flu-like symptoms.”

If anything has changed in athletics departments since the emergence of the H1N1 virus, team doctors and health officials are now reaffirming that coaches should firmly discourage athletes who normally would seek to play through a traditional cold or flu from rejoining their teams early.

“We’ve been in communication with coaches since last spring, and we’ve not had any problems with them accepting that sick people should not be at practice or playing in games,” said Larry Magee, head team physician at the University of Kansas, where 32 cases of the H1N1 virus have recently been confirmed. “Sick athletes are being told to stay in isolation and not to return until 24 hours after they are no longer running a fever.”

Given the seriousness of the H1N1 virus, other college officials say they do not have to reinforce to coaches the importance of keeping players, even star players, off the playing field when they show flu-like symptoms.

“Lots of student-athletes will play though illness and injuries, against a trainer’s advice,” Hilliard said. “But, with H1N1, the stakes are higher. With a pandemic that’s been recognized as such and has received so much attention all at once, there are not any coaches that would want to have one player infect all of their teammates and grind athletic competition to a halt. Any coach that would encourage someone to play sick would be risking violating a student’s rights. They need to be treated as students first and athletes second.”

Many conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 Conference, do not have all-encompassing policies regarding the handling of the H1N1 virus or guidelines for situations like canceling sporting events. Officials from those conferences, like those from the NCAA, said they would advise their member institutions to following directives from the CDC or Homeland Security, instead.


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