History provides clues about how COVID-19 could disrupt college football season

Newspaper files from 1918, when a flu pandemic ripped through America, provide eerily similar headlines as the nation faces a similar landscape in 2020. 

NORMAN — College football will take place this fall. Comments made by decision-makers and administrators for most of the past month have indicated as much. 

Reading between the lines in their messages, the pandemic is a deterrent, but not a show-stopper. Optimism is more rampant than pessimism.

But as various sports and leagues have crossed their fingers and attempted to return to normal, positive COVID-19 cases have greeted them.

Tuesday, Boise State shuttered its football facilities temporarily due to eight positive cases (the buildings will reopen Sunday). Brooks Koepka won’t play in the Travelers Championship this weekend because his caddie tested positive. Novaj Djokovic, the Philadelphia Phillies, and other college football teams have experienced the ripple effects of positive tests.

The primary focus is on speedy and complete recoveries for those who catch the virus. But around them, sports try to push forward.

As college football hopes to crown a national champion, it must face the reality that without a quarantine-bubble model like a professional league, the schedule is increasingly at risk.

If outbreaks within teams create holes in their opponents’ schedules, next, holes will emerge in records, résumés will become incomplete and the College Football Playoff’s committee already difficult task of picking the four best teams becomes even more so.

A glimpse at local history can help us see how football and COVID-19 might co-exist.

As the deadly 1918 flu pandemic ripped through the nation, headlines in the Norman newspaper The Daily Transcript informed of university quarantines, warned against large gatherings and printed other important messages from state health officials.

The paper gave little context to OU’s 1918 football season amid the pandemic, though it noted the Sooners’ season opener against Central Normal was closed to outsiders — except members of the Student Army Training Corps — and that the field was patrolled by military police.

The Daily Transcript’s sports coverage was more focused on Norman High School, and the paper reported the flu’s impact on that team.

Consider this from the Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1918, edition, when Norman coach H.C. Vetter was clamoring for a game against Oklahoma City.

“Agitation has been started here by H.C. Vetter, coach of the Norman high school football team, for an extended schedule that will permit playing games of footbal (sic) into the last days of December.

“Coach Vetter bases his action upon the fact that the state-wide epidemic of Spanish ‘flu’ has interfered with the greater part of the playing season.”

That’s an example of schedule disruption, but the term can be used more broadly, incorporating the possibility that top players could be out for weeks at a time if they catch the virus.

The PGA Tour moving forward this weekend without Koepka — a winner and one of the tour’s most recognizable golfers — is a disruption.

If a football team were to shut down practice operations for any period of time in October, that’s a disruption.

If OU must play Texas without Spencer Rattler — and not at the State Fair of Texas — that’s a disruption.

Clemson and Texas’ football programs each had more than 13 players test positive for the virus last week. That type of infection rate in-season could turn a national championship run upside down.

Here’s one more Norman High excerpt from The Daily Transcript, from the Monday, October 28, 1918 edition, headlined “Crippled Football Squad Piles Up 40 Points in Fast Game on Boyd Field Last Friday.”

“Although the local team was greatly weakened on account of the influenza epidemic, which has effected several members of the eleven, and with Captain Bob Howard out of town, they defeated (Guthrie) by the score of forty to 0, in what is termed a fast game.”

It’s unclear why Captain Bob Howard was out of town.

But it’s clear the flu was making rounds within the Norman High locker room.

College football can’t operate in a bubble system like the NBA’s model. Players must proactively steer clear of the virus when classes resume — using a combination of tactics like self-quarantining, proper health measures and a little luck — if they want to play football.

The virus’ potential to change rosters week-to-week is one of the most simple, but impactful, effects schools face.

Trending up: Not directly football related, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top disease expert, told Congress on Tuesday that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that a COVID-19 vaccine could be available by the end of the year at the earliest, or the beginning of 2021.

“If you look at the history of viral diseases, it’s generally vaccines that put the nail in the coffin of these types,” Fauci said.

Trending down: A vaccine could help improve the outlook of OU’s 2021 budget, which, if you missed it last week, has a dim forecast.

The athletic department’s early projection — not a final number by any stretch — indicates revenue could decrease by as much as $25 million in the fiscal 2021 year compared to 2020.

That figure was drawn from the approved budget at last week’s board of regents meeting.

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