Coronavirus, Spanish Flu
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

When Sports Stood Still: How Coronavirus Mirrors 1918's Spanish Flu

The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons. The MLB canceled spring training and pushed back the start of the regular season. Every major collegiate conference canceled its postseason men's and women's basketball tournaments, and the billion-dollar NCAA Tournament has been canceled because of the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus.

This feels unprecedented, right? Well, almost 100 years ago, another pandemic shocked the world, pausing everything just like the spread of coronavirus is today.

What Caused the Spanish Flu in 1918?

At the tail end of World War I, the deadliest influenza pandemic in human history spread around the world. The original cause of the H1N1 virus is unknown, but it's believed to have started in Europe before spreading across Asia and hitting the United States. An estimated 500 million people were infected worldwide — that was one-third of the world's population at the time — including a death toll of at least 50 million people globally. The number of deaths in the United States reached about 675,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Spanish Flu pandemic was so deadly because proper influenza vaccinations were not around at the time. Also, many physicians and doctors were fighting in WWI, making proper health care harder to find.

As you'd expect, the ramifications of Spanish Flu touched all parts of society, including sports.

Spanish Flu and The Sports World

The Spanish Flu outbreak became so bad that bodies were literally being collected on street corners. An article from The Philadelphia Inquirer cites 12,191 residents of the city died in a four-week span.

Naturally, there was concern about large crowds getting together with the flu quickly spreading. Officials in Philadelphia and other major cities canceled high school and college football games, soccer matches, and even a high-profile boxing match between the legendary Jack Dempsey and Battling Levinsky. Competition schedules were shortened at major college programs. Public gatherings were discouraged by health officials, as the death rate among young adults and healthy people aged 20-40 was actually the highest.

MLB was the largest American pro league at the time, and its season ended shortly before the worst of the flu pandemic during the fall of 1918. Public health was so bad by the time the 1918 World Series came around, though, Major League Baseball went so far as to ban the "spitball" from being thrown.

The Stanley Cup series wasn't finished after most of the Montreal Canadians' players fell ill after five games. The Seattle Metropolitans didn't accept the team's forfeit as the series was tied 2-2-1, and the teams are remembered as co-champions.

Spanish Flu was largely contained after travel restrictions and large gatherings were discouraged. Just like in 1918, fear of spreading disease is bringing similar tactics back around to contain 2020's coronavirus outbreak.

Sports and The Coronavirus Outbreak

While the coronavirus pandemic's symptoms fall in line with influenza, the mortality rate isn't even close to what happened in 1918. However, fears that the virus has killed at-risk individuals, particularly the elderly population, is causing a similar trickle-down effect of cancellations and postponements.

The list of sports events ceasing competition is growing, and as of March 12, 2020, several college football programs and NFL teams have even paused offseason activities as the mass hysteria takes over.

Sports Leagues Suspended Due to Coronavirus Fears

NBA - Season suspended indefinitely; 2 Utah Jazz players test positive

NHL - Season suspended indefinitely

MLB - Spring Training canceled; Regular season delayed two weeks

NFL - Several teams have pulled scouts from travel; Some facilities are closed until further notice

MLS - Season suspended

College Basketball - At least 13 major conferences canceled basketball tournaments; Increased doubt surrounding March Madness

Collegiate Athletics - All NCAA championships of winter and spring sports are canceled

XFL - Several games will not have fans in attendance

NASCAR - Upcoming races to be held without fans

National Lacrosse League - Season suspended indefinitely

Tennis - ATP Tour suspended six weeks

Golf - Upcoming PGA Tour events held without fans

Formula One - Australian Grand Prix canceled

Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games in Japan face growing concerns of even taking place

These types of cancellations and suspensions of play are being felt all over the world. International soccer competitions like the world-renowned Champions League and Europa League are in danger of being canceled altogether, while play in Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A is suspended, and English Premier League games are being played behind closed doors.

The parallels here are eerily similar. Thankfully, concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus strain are being met head-on by President Donald Trump and the White House staff to control spread of the virus. This global pandemic isn't as deadly as 1918, but the spread of contagion certainly warrants putting a brief hold on sporting events once again.

Even if it means we have to watch reruns of Game of Thrones for an entire month, I'd rather do it healthy than sick.

MORE: NCAA Cancels March Madness, All Remaining Championships