Flu hands setback to tradition

Posted May 07, 2009, at 11:08 p.m.

The panic over the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, seemingly is subsiding, leaving behind what some might describe as a proactive approach to thwarting the spread of the disease, and what others might call just another overreaction.

I, for one, would not presume to call any steps taken that might help prevent the spread of a somewhat mysterious disease an overreaction.

But one thing is certain, kids and adults alike are at least a little more aware of the ways such a disease can spread, and how frequent hand cleaning is in the best interest of good health.

We should all remember that next winter, when the plain old flu returns.

But while thankful that this case of swine flu hasn’t had more dire consequences, allow me to lament about one of the victims of this episode.

It’s one of the fundamentals of friendship, and a rite of competition — the simple handshake.

Athletes around the country, including here in Maine, have been encouraged not to shake hands with their foes on the field of play during this recent outbreak.

In fact, two conferences, the Southern Maine Activities Association that governs Class A sports in Western Maine and the Class B Western Maine Conference, developed a joint Pandemic Preparedness Plan to deal with the swine flu threat that included a ban on pregame and postgame handshakes.

Again, there’s no complaint here about the goal of the precautionary effort, to further limit the possibility of the disease spreading through hand-to-hand contact.

But the precedent established by the need to take such steps is unfortunate for the tradition it targets, for it will be much easier to eliminate the handshake again the next time a potential contagion takes its place at the forefront of the public consciousness, perhaps rendering it another step closer to extinction.

My handshake philosophy is rather old-fashioned, that it’s a simple sign of respect virtually universal in its application, and appropriately applied in the sports world as both a wish of good luck and an expression of congratulations.

I do believe it can be overused, for example during the high school basketball season when every player on both teams must shake hands not only with his or her opposing player, but also the opposing coach and each of the game officials.

Evidence of how that might represent handshake overkill comes when the opposing coach occasionally assigns an assistant to receive the player handshakes. And as far as the officials go, they probably would be more appreciative of merely having their calls during the game accepted more often without argument.

But ultimately there is something special about pregame ceremonies, that ultimate final moment of anticipation for the competition to come. And handshakes are a quite personal part of that experience.

Hopefully that will remain the case for generations to come, though whether it will or not remains to be seen.

Even the two Maine high school conferences that discouraged the tradition in their pandemic preparedness plan did so with the addendum that they hoped this would be only a short-term recommendation in the face of this specific health challenge.

Perhaps it is cleaner and more healthful to avoid all such contact, but ideally the handshake should remain one of the more humane means of communicating competitive good will.

For we can always use as much of that as we can get.

eclark@bangordailynews.net

990-8045

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