The Picture Shocks: A group of fans watch a college football game amid a pandemic. They all wear masks, but they barely keep distance from each other in the different rows of stands.
This photo was taken 102 years ago.
Georgia Tech students’ Twitter account posted this sepia photograph, showing the scene at Grant Field in 1918. Decades before there were parking lot parties, primetime television coverage and billions of dollars in money By spreading it in the media, the slogan of fervent sports fans was not very different from what many are saying now: Despite the risks, you have to go to the game.
And once the public is allowed to return to the stadiums, history shows that the response can be remarkable.
“That’s really what started with the great boom in college football in the 1920s,” said Jeremy Swick.
The historian of the College Football Hall of Fame said that fans and players back then were eager for the return of the sport.
“The people were ready. He was returning from the war. I wanted there to be games again. There were not so many restrictions on leaving. It was possible to enroll in school quite easily. You see a lot of talent that returns to the environment. There is more money. The fury of the 20s has begun to be felt, and that is where we see a kind of arms race between the stadiums. Who can build the largest and most intimidating stadium? ”
Now, a return seems distant, even as some schools prepare with the confidence that they will be able to contest the full campaign this fall. For now, the headlines of the press are still dominated by discussions about what activities can be carried out safely.
On Friday, the Southeast Conference (SEC) gave its go-ahead for all athletes to return to campus on June 8, for voluntary activities, at the discretion of each university.
“I think many people will hesitate to attend sporting events as spectators until there is a proven vaccine,” said Johnny Smith, professor of sports history at Georgia Tech. “I think there are parallels to what we can learn from 1918, in terms of how we respond to a pandemic. Cities that were hesitating and did not impose closure orders so quickly had more deaths. I think the general lesson we can learn from 1918, about how to respond to a pandemic, is that orders for confinement and social distancing are effective. “
Back then, college football was having trouble completing its rosters, amid the lingering effects of World War I. There were restrictions on travel, practices, and the number of games that could be played.
The classic Army-Navy encounter was canceled in 1918, and the only postseason game was the East vs. West match in 1919 in Pasadena. It was a version of what is now known as the Rose Bowl.
The pandemic infected players and coaches, shortened seasons, and even forced some universities to cancel their campaigns. On October 13, 1918, The Washington Post published a note in which he declared that the epidemic “that runs through the country has dealt the necessary blow to the necessary preparations and, with the scenario still undefined, the prospect is anything but bright “
Bob Folwell, Penn’s coach remembered as the first coach of the New York Giants, was hospitalized with the Spanish flu, and missed six weeks of work during the 1918 season. West Virginia was unable to complete even one team, and at least one player died after a cold ended up being confirmed as the dreaded influenza.
The Missouri Valley Conference, which included Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri, closed activities throughout the season. Pittsburgh and Michigan shared the national title, though neither team played more than five games – all except one of these in November.
In September 1918, the second and deadliest wave of the pandemic hit the United States. It was the crushing blow for teams trying to schedule a full season.
On the subject, there were some headlines in the press that today attract attention.
“Masks for Michigan Men,” headlined the Daily Pennsylvanian on October 23. “Hard year for American football, but the sport shows its verve,” the Chicago Daily Tribune highlighted on October 21.
“Many closed their camps, especially once the second wave came,” Swick said.
The pandemic killed more than 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States. Although the number of deaths from the coronavirus is much lower in 2020, Smith considered viewers to be cautious.
“I think, overall, people are going to be more hesitant to go back to the stadiums today,” Smith estimated. “It seems to me that there will be a certain segment of the population that is more concerned with a second wave. It is another lesson from 1918 that we must keep in mind. ”
And if fans are allowed in, what rules will be implemented? That question will be in the air in the fall, in case universities open their doors to students.
Is it safe to get fans to crowd onto the stands if the pandemic continues?
“I think when we look back on this idea of people wearing face masks to attend a game and ask the question today if people would do that, I’m not so sure I would,” said Smith.
Much more is at stake than a century ago: television, money, college bowls, conference championships, travel around the country. And everything involves a decision-making process.
There are 130 major category college football teams in 2020, divided into 41 states and 10 conferences. And that excludes independent organizations.
Playing or not playing is the dilemma, also a century later. But American football and sports will return at some point, as they did in 1919.
The Ogden Standard newspaper highlighted that, after the one-year stoppage in state sports, “he eagerly awaited the whisper of studded shoes, the celebrations of victory and the return of the greatest of all collegiate sports.”
“People really wanted to get back into their lives,” said Smith. “Sport refers to experience and human connection. We do not want to be isolated. That is a frustration for many people in 1918 and today. I think the fact that people have not been able to attend sporting events is symbolic of a greater sense of loss in the United States. “