Commentary

Football fever. It's catching … literally

Should schools be allowing players with fevers to suit up and play on Saturdays?

Originally Published: September 23, 2009
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

The flu bug sacked Texas Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy last week, causing him to miss a day of practice and slowing him a bit in the payback game with Texas Tech.

Three Florida Gators played under the weather Saturday in a closer-than-expected affair with rival Tennessee; the same bug apparently snagged wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales on Monday and a number of other players on Tuesday.

A little farther away from those big stages, tiny Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., forfeited its home football opener earlier this month after the flu took down more than a third of its 68-man roster.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesColt McCoy was quarantined for a couple of days before Texas played Texas Tech on Saturday night.

With each passing day, it seems, new reports of flu-like symptoms hitting football teams crop up on the sports pages. Campuses such as Mississippi, Tulane, Wisconsin, Washington State and Duke have already been affected, and on Tuesday, at least five football players from Clemson -- including four from the offensive line -- came down with flu-like symptoms.

According to medical experts, the flu that's hitting those athletic fields and locker rooms is in all likelihood the swine flu, the well-chronicled virus technically known as H1N1. Upwards of 95 percent of the flu viruses currently circulating in the U.S. are H1N1, so experts assume that is what's afflicting anyone said to be experiencing an influenza-type illness.

So maybe the question should be asked: Why in the world are all these sick people playing football on Saturdays in an environment that seems perfectly suited for further contagion, especially when the experts advise anyone with the symptoms to stay isolated from the general public until 24 hours after the fever has passed?

Before anyone panics, here's an answer: Health officials say the flu isn't that big a deal, though they're concerned to hear about players taking the field with fevers. The swine flu doesn't pose much of a long-term health risk, at least for fit, young athletes.

Of course, even a fit, young athlete might feel as though he's been hit by a train for a few days when he experiences the rapid onset of a high fever.

"It is a harmless, mild disease in the vast majority of people who get it,'' says Dr. James Turner, the president of the American College Health Association and the director of health services at the University of Virginia. "Probably 99.9 percent or higher have a cough and a sore throat for three or four days, and then it goes away. However, there is a chance that someone who is at risk of complications could come in contact with the viruses. Among athletes, you have some who have asthma, maybe diabetes. They are at higher risk. But there are not dire consequences from someone inadvertently contracting this disease.

"I will say that it has taken on a life of its own, and it has perhaps been sensationalized to a degree. ''

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesSeveral of Urban Meyer's Gators played through their symptoms last weekend.

Not just by the tabloids and mainstream media, either. Florida football coach Urban Meyer jumped headfirst into the fray in discussing the No. 1-ranked Gators' bout with the flu, describing the concern as at a "panic level of proportions I've never seen before.''

His pronouncement came after three Gators -- tailback Jeff Demps, tight end Aaron Hernandez and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham -- struggled against both the flu and the Vols in Gainesville. Demps (four carries for 31 yards and a touchdown) played despite a fever topping 100 degrees, a school official confirmed.

"If it's anybody else but Jeff Demps," Meyer said of his speedy back, "they said he probably wouldn't be able to function, and Jeff didn't look right.''

Steve McClain, the athletic department's spokesman, later tried to tone down the drama, saying the three players had recovered from their bouts with flu. Then he added that Gonzales, the coach, had been sent home Monday with a high fever.

"We're following the CDC guidelines across the board and educating our student-athletes on precautions that can be taken,'' McClain said. "Fortunately, [the flu] hasn't really run through our team. You hear [about] schools [with] 20 guys missing practice. It has been one here, one here.''

According to a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu guidelines are fairly basic: Drink plenty of fluids; practice good hand hygiene; and, if you're running a fever, stay away from people until at least a day after it subsides.

"That's without the use of fever-reducing medication,'' CDC spokesman Tom Skinner cautions. "Again, fever is sort of an indication that someone is still infectious and still sick. If someone is running a high fever, that is an indication they probably are capable of transmitting whatever they have to other people.''

But it bears repeating: The risk to date isn't thought to be great.

The American College Health Association, which has been tracking the flu bug on college campuses, recently found 13,000 cases (less than 1 percent) among the 250 universities reporting data. Those schools represent 3 million students. Of the flu cases, only 27 required hospitalization, and there were no deaths.

Snead
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisNearly three dozen Mississippi players, including quarterback Jevan Snead, suffered through the flu during an off week.

Though separate data on student-athletes haven't been compiled, officials don't believe they should be treated differently than other university students. When they're running a fever, isolate them.

"From anecdotal reports in the press about football teams coming down with H1N1, it clearly is affecting teams,'' says Turner, the ACHA president. "Certainly in the contact sports like football, soccer and wrestling, there is a lot of sharing of respiratory secretions and saliva. So I would think that people who are ill and playing in these contact sports can spread to members of their team and other teams. So it is in everyone's best interest to try to avoid having these athletes competing or practicing in these contact sports.

"I understand it could certainly have a big impact on an athletic team. If it spreads throughout the team and 20 to 30 percent of the starters came down with it in a week, that could make the difference between winning and losing. But by letting them play, you run the risk of spreading it amongst your team and maybe the other team. Maybe spreading it amongst the other team isn't that big a deal, but it could spread further on your own team -- players, coaches, medical staff. Maybe in the short term, it looks like great idea [to allow them to play]; but long-term, it could impact the status of the team for the following week and the week after.''

Tulane athletic officials got lucky when the flu outbreak struck there in mid-August, which didn't put them at risk of having to cancel a football game or interrupt preparation for an upcoming contest. School officials said 36 football players have since returned after being treated for flu-like symptoms. Tulane did pull its volleyball team out of a season-opening tournament in Omaha, Neb., when six players came down with the flu.

Fortuitous timing worked in favor of fourth-ranked Mississippi, too, when the bug hit 38 players just days after the Rebels played at Memphis on Sept. 6. The team had an open date the next weekend, before hosting Southeastern Louisiana.

"It took several days for them to bounce back and recover, so it would have been rough if we'd have had to play [on the open date],'' Mississippi head trainer Tim Mullins says.

As it is, Mullins points out that the players are still dealing with the fallout from the flu as they struggle to regain lost weight. Some lost as much as 15 pounds.

"It's hard to gain a lot of weight during the middle of the season when you're playing,'' he says.

[+] EnlargeBarry Alvarez
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez gave Fresno State the option of bailing on a trip to Madison.

Hardest hit because of the early start of classes, health officials say, have been schools in the Southeast and Midwest.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., athletic director Curtis Campbell canceled Stillman College's home opener when nearly 30 football players took ill in the days leading up to the game with Clark Atlanta. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools couldn't agree on a makeup date, so Stillman ended up forfeiting.

"We had so many players that had flu symptoms that we couldn't practice at all that week,'' Campbell says.

A week later, in Madison, Wis., the Badgers had nearly 40 players with flu-like symptoms, but they suited up on Saturday and defeated Fresno State in double overtime. Last weekend, two more players -- both freshmen likely to be redshirted -- experienced similar symptoms. The swimming and track teams have also been hit by the flu, says athletic director Barry Alvarez.

"When someone has the symptoms, we try to be very proactive,'' Alvarez says. "Get them fluids and isolate them, and try and get them rest. The doctors have said it is best way to treat it. The first week, we had so many [sick] that we gave everyone Tamiflu, a capsule a day. That helped us that week so we didn't have more kids [sick] the day of the game. "

Alvarez says players with high temperatures were kept in isolation.

Early in the week before the Fresno State game, he called school officials in California and alerted them to the situation and confirmed they'd still make the trek to Madison.

"I felt like it would have to come from them if they felt concerned about coming here and being [possibly] contaminated,'' Alvarez says.

Fresno State held to its commitment.

"Our team doctors and head trainers spoke amongst themselves, and they let us know what was going on at Wisconsin,'' says Paul Ladwig, Fresno State's associate athletic director for external relations. "We determined it was safe to go. When we got there, we sanitized down our locker room. We had the guys on fluids.

"We took 131 people [including players, coaches and support staff], and 131 came back with no flu. Everyone was fine and healthy.''

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.

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