Commentary

Swine flu fallout rattles sports world

Updated: May 1, 2009, 6:13 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill and Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Chicago Fire and Club America fansDavid Banks/Getty ImagesSwine flu fallout is everywhere, including the Chicago Fire's match on Wednesday.
Alyssa Edwards' mom helped pick out her prom dress. It's black with rhinestone straps and matching shoes. From the time she was a kid, Edwards dreamed about her senior year of high school. The last month would be special. She'd play softball for New Braunfels, a sports-crazy south Texas town of 52,000. She'd ace her college prep classes. She'd hang out with her friends at the river or Herbert's Taco Hut.

And she'd go to the prom.

It was a warm spring day in New Braunfels on Thursday, but many of the town's students were cooped up indoors. School is shut down until May 11 because of the swine flu virus, disrupting ballgames, track meets and New Braunfels' sense of normalcy. There will be no church services Sunday. One simple hug or a handshake could pass on the H1N1 virus, the new, politically correct name of the flu strain that is prompting fears of a Phase 6 pandemic, the highest level on the World Health Organization's pandemic alert scale. It already is being blamed for the death of a 23-month-old child in Texas, and officials believe there have been at least 168 swine flu-related deaths across the border in Mexico.

In New Braunfels, they are not wearing face masks, and most folks aren't even sure who accounts for the one confirmed case that shut things down. But swine flu fallout is everywhere, from the closed parks to the recommendations from health officials for kids to avoid socializing and gathering in large groups.

"Everybody's scared about the swine flu," Edwards says. "It's been really hard. I don't know what to do with myself. All I really do is school and softball."

Alyssa Edwards/Eva Harshman
Courtesy of Alyssa EdwardsAlyssa Edwards and her coach, Eva Harshman, can't wait to get back to normal.

Edwards isn't alone. Over the course of the past week, students, parents, teachers, coaches and athletes from high school to the major leagues, from New York to California, have been worried about a swine flu pandemic. Schools have been closed and high school and college games have been canceled or postponed, and if the disease continues to escalate in size and scope, some have suggested the canceling of professional sports could become a necessity.

"It's the fear of the unknown," says Mark Dworkin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of a new book, "Outbreak Investigations Around the World." "There's no background for this strain of virus and the information keeps changing every day. We don't know what to expect."

Not far from New Braunfels, at Byron Steele High School in Cibolo, the district has eight confirmed cases of swine flu. The tennis courts are chained and padlocked. The district's athletic director, Robert Lehnhoff, is sitting in an office that has been repeatedly scrubbed and sanitized. He's got kids who are worried about whether they'll be able to qualify for the state track meet, kids who can't take their state assessment tests to graduate, kids who just want things to go back to normal.

The scare in this neck of Texas started, really, on April 24. That's when word hit that Cibolo had a confirmed case of swine flu. Steele High was in the middle of a baseball game, and questions grew with every inning. Should the game be called off? And what about when it's over? Should the players shake hands? The teams met on the field after the game, touched hands, then washed up before leaving the stadium.

"Are we overreacting?" Lehnhoff said.

"It's the health officials' job to make the call on all this. To question it would be like me calling the plays and someone saying, 'Why don't they throw the ball more?'"


A week ago in the rest of the country, it was merely a blip, a cable-news scroll with faraway implications that read "SWINE FLU IN MEXICO." Even coaches across the border in Texas didn't think much of it.

Now, the swine flu has affected just about every corner of the United States. On Thursday, several University of Delaware athletic teams canceled their participation in weekend events because of cases of influenza on campus. High school events were canceled in Texas, Alabama and Tennessee. And the Great Northwest Athletic Conference scrapped this weekend's track and field championship in Oregon.

In the middle of the country, in Chicago, Florida Marlins utilityman Alfredo Amezaga fretted about his family in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, where there are two documented cases. He recently tried to convince his parents to come the United States so they could be safe, but his mother and father refused.

"All of my family is in Mexico, so I wanted to bring them all here, first of all, my parents. But they don't want to come because what if they have [swine flu]?" Amezaga said Thursday night at Wrigley Field before the Marlins played the Cubs. "I was like, 'C'mon, Dad. Don't scare me like that.' I'm a little bit worried, but I talked to him [Wednesday] and he said the schools in Mexico are closed and it's supposed to get better by [May 6]."

Nearly 300 high schools across the nation have been closed because of swine flu fears, and that number is expected to grow. While Texas and Alabama have postponed high school games and meets until at least next week, very few events in New York -- which one expert referred to as the "ground zero" of this virus because of its 50 laboratory-confirmed cases -- have been canceled or disrupted.

"And there are no plans to do so," says Margie Feinberg, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education.

That variation in responses to the swine flu has led many to wonder whether the postponements, especially in the high schools, are an overreaction. The Center for Disease Control estimates that some 36,000 Americans die from flu-related causes from the regular strain of the virus each year. As of Thursday, the H1N1 strain had caused at least 109 laboratory-confirmed cases in the United States and the one death of the young Mexican boy who became sick while visiting Brownsville, Texas.

The threat, says Dr. Brian Currie, an infectious disease expert at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, is that the flu is easily transmitted to large groups of people through droplet transmission. When people gather at sporting events and someone with the infection coughs, anyone and anything within three feet of that individual could become contaminated by the droplets.

"It's not only person-to-person, but all these inanimate objects that become contaminated for a day or two," Currie says. "Things like door knobs, railings, arm rests and turnstiles -- all these commonly touched items can get infected and anyone who subsequently touches them can get infected as well."

[+] EnlargeTom Pennington/Getty Images
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesAt Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth, coach Tommy Elliott breaks the bad news to his baseball team: no more games until at least May 11.

Still, there have been no postponements and very little ripple effect so far in professional and major-college sports in the U.S. Some organizations, such as the Dallas Mavericks, have added additional hand-washing stations, and others have begun to put together contingency plans in the event that the outbreak worsens and games need to be canceled or postponed. Others haven't done anything yet.

But in Mexico, the sports scene is practically shuttered. This weekend, all 176 Mexican League soccer matches will be played in empty stadiums. CONCACAF, soccer's governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, canceled its under-17 tourney and postponed the second leg of its Champions League finals. In golf, The Nationwide Tour has postponed the Mexico Open, which was to be played the week of May 18-24.

"If this starts to really take off and become an epidemic, then you would certainly consider canceling or closing major activities that would bring together crowds of people," Dr. Currie says, "like a sporting event."


As schools in Fort Worth shut down Thursday, David Shepherd stepped out of a classroom at W.T. White High School to talk about his team's baseball season. Shepherd has been coaching since 1980, but he's never had a team like this. Private schools in North Dallas have swallowed up much of the area's baseball talent, he says, and so W.T. White is fielding a team with just 10 players. Five of his guys define the word "utility" -- they pitch and are willing to play just about anywhere. Still, the team is undefeated in district play and has clinched its district title.

Now, Shepherd is just hoping that the postponement of this very unique baseball season doesn't stretch past May 11 and into infinity. Like just about every other school in Texas, there have been rumors: that the swine flu has hit W.T. White, that all the schools might not finish the year. Shepherd just goes to work.

"I'm hoping we dodge bullets," he says. "I don't think that's hit them yet. I think they realize the playoffs have been pushed back, but I don't even think it's entered their minds, the possibility to not be able to complete it. I'm not thinking about it, either."

In some ways, Shepherd considers them lucky. At least they can practice at W.T. White. Other teams across Texas are at a bigger disadvantage. When schools shut down, so did practices. Alabama postponed activities "to protect our kids and … make sure that all of our kids in this state have the opportunity to compete in scholastic athletics," says Steve Savarese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.

[+] EnlargeAlfredo Amezaga
AP Photo/Paul BeatyThe Marlins' Alfredo Amezaga had more on his mind than baseball at Wrigley Field on Thursday.

It's the same mission in Texas. At first, some teams from communities where infections have been found feared they'd have to forfeit district or playoff games because they wouldn't be allowed to play. There have already been instances of kids from H1N1-exposed schools being turned away at school functions in other communities. Lehnhoff, the athletic director at Cibolo Steele, says some of his kids have been barred from attending proms at neighboring schools.

Dworkin, the University of Illinois at Chicago professor, believes it is not yet time to panic and that it's important to remember that infectious diseases are not new to the sports world, which has dealt previously with bacterial infections, herpes in wrestlers and football players and even a recent MRSA scare.

If he were in charge of a professional or college sports team that had no cases of the infection and none reported on campus, he would let the games go on and use the gathering as a chance to inform the public.

"I would just harp on hygiene," Dworkin says. "When you get that many people together, it's just one more opportunity to let everyone know what they can do to help themselves. So I would do that -- and I would make sure we had plenty of soap and water on hand."

At W.T. White, where numbers were an issue well before the swine flu, Shepherd has versed his team on hygiene and being careful. He asked his players to carry hand sanitizer in their bags, and to practice safe hand-shaking.

He says he isn't worried about a pandemic.

"No, I'm an old guy," Shepherd says. "I've seen just about everything you can see. I'm nervous about one thing. I've got grandkids, and it scares me because my granddaughter, she's in kindergarten, and my grandson's in day care. So that worries me more than school. Those little kids -- one touch, and they put things in their mouth.

"As a matter of fact, I'd like to take off and take care of them myself."


It rained Monday in New Braunfels, and the softball team sat together that afternoon, talking about the news of Cibolo's shutting down over the weekend. They worried about their own school and their season. What if New Braunfels shut down, too, and they had to forfeit? Eva Harshman, a first-year coach who has guided the Unicorns to a 24-4 record, tried to reassure them. If it happened, they'd make the best of it. A few hours later, they were forced to do just that when New Braunfels closed as well.

[+] EnlargeAztec Stadium
AP Photo/Gregory BullIn Mexico, they're still playing soccer, but no one can watch it in person.

On Wednesday, the University Interscholastic League announced that all athletic and academic events would be postponed until May 11. New Braunfels breathed a sigh of relief as that's the day school is supposed to resume.

But many wonder what the swine flu will look like in 10 days. Will it be shrugged off as another overblown health scare? Will it be much more? Nobody, from big-time sports execs in New York to high school coaches in Texas, knows.

In New Braunfels, Alyssa Edwards has had company at home. Her dad, Douglas, is the baseball coach for the Unicorns and a geometry teacher at New Braunfels High. His team is on the playoff bubble, happy that its final regular-season game will be played, unsure of what else the future holds.

"What I'm worried about is more cases," Douglas Edwards says. "It's not over yet.

"I've spoken to one of my friends in Corpus [Christi], and he seems to think there is up to 20 possible cases there. So what's the future with this deal? I don't know. We're just trying to do our part in our community to put a stop to it as quickly as we can."

Meanwhile, his bowling league has been postponed. His family went to Herbert's Taco House on Wednesday night, when it's normally bustling, and the place was nearly empty.

Prom is postponed until later in the month. The softball season, they hope, will pick up where they left it a week ago, when life seemed far less isolated and scary. The Unicorns, bored and stir-crazy, decided to organize their own informal workout Thursday. The coaches weren't there, and didn't encourage the event because students aren't supposed to gather and the parks are closed.

They hit ground balls, felt the sun; and for maybe an hour, they forgot about H1N1.

"I'm upset about it," Alyssa Edwards says. "I don't want to be sitting around at home for a week and a half. I was just expecting to be able to go to school and finish it strong. And then this happens."

ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenburg contributed to this report. Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. Wayne Drehs is also a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Follow Wayne's Twitter feed at ESPNWayne Drehs.