Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Could NFL Games Be Played in Empty Stadiums?

There are 176 soccer matches scheduled in Mexico that will be played without fans in attendance out of concerns for the flu.

I know the flu stories are overexposed. As a bit of autobiographical background, I spent six years after undergrad working in a lab studying the 1918 flu. So I have followed flu quite closely for over a decade.

In a nutshell, if you were to poll flu experts, I would wager every single one of them would tell you that the question is not whether there will be another flu pandemic, but when it will occur.

There have been previous warnings about various flu strains (usually avian flu). None of those outbreaks caused me much concern, even though some of those flu strains killed 30-50% of those infected.

This outbreak is the first one that actually concerns me. Unlike the avian flu that (in my opinion) caused unwarranted hysteria, this strain is spreading rapidly from person to person, and even if the fatality rate is low, the cumulative effects could be pretty serious.

And, I don't mean to be alarmist by any stretch. The flu could fizzle as it has before. I only mean to say that out of all the public health threats that we have faced in my lifetime, this is the first one that actually concerns me.

The 1918 flu came and went in various waves over the course of around eight to nine months. If this potential pandemic behaves similarly, we could be in for an extended period where public gatherings are intermittently cancelled. That would include sporting events like those soccer games in Mexico.

It wouldn't surprise me if some baseball games were cancelled in the next week or two. Whether we will still be talking about all of this in the fall is anybody's guess. I wouldn't bet on it, but it is certainly possible that flu will still be circulating this fall.

Of course, it goes without saying that if the NFL does play some empty stadium games, football will be pretty low on the list of things to worry about.

ADDENDUM: I give Obama a pretty tough time on this blog. The flu outbreak could turn out to be his administration's "Katrina." So far the administration seems to be doing a good job staying on top of the situation and putting preparations in place (without engaging in panicky alarmism), in contrast to the Bush administration that always seemed to be taken by surprise by crises. So there you go. Credit where it is due.

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