BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/10/2020

Thiel: Our ‘mentals’ in Seattle sports to be tested

The four major sports leagues took some combined action as coronavirus spreads. Tough as it would be to shut down, imagine the difficulty in knowing when and how to start up.

Not a good game-day look. / Seattle Seahawks

My most recent pro sports locker-room media scrum came in January in the visitors’ quarters at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. I was about eight feet from Marshawn Lynch when he offered prophecy worthy of the Oracle of Delphi.

As you may recall, following the 28-23 playoff loss to the Packers that ended the Seahawks season, Lynch ascended the altar and offered a rare, pithy encyclical directed primarily at younger NFL players.

But the wisdom swept from the locker room and transcended all sports, industries, nations, races, ages and genders.

So spaketh he:

  • Take care of y’all bodies
  • Take care of y’all chicken
  • Take care of y’all mentals

For those unfamiliar with the ancient Sanskrit of the Oakland street, chicken means money (prophets always require interpreters; it’s part of what makes them cool).

Those present knew we had heard something of immense cultural and spiritual value. But until this week, it seemed more mystical than practical. At least to me.

But then the country was convulsed by the coronavirus.

Suddenly, my 401K chicken be slashed, and my body be messed up because my mentals ain’t right.

Give Lynch credit for seeing what was coming. It was up to the rest of us to figure it out. I was eight feet away, yet I didn’t hear.

No, I don’t have COVID-19. But I am feeling professionally queasy.

The feeling began Monday afternoon when North America’s four major pro sports leagues got together and took a baby step in the direction of attempting to mitigate (not contain; too late for that) the spread of the virus by closing down locker rooms to media and non-essential personnel.

A highly unusual joint statement said the decision was made “after consultation with infectious disease and public health experts.”

A part of the statement read:

Given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice. Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting.

I’m not going on a rant here about a potential threat to media freedoms by this denial of locker-room access. That may be true, and it wouldn’t be a good thing. But if I never did another locker-room bump-and-trip, I’d be OK with it. The set-up is awkward and demeaning for all parties. And since none are likely to be more weirdly intriguing than Lynch in Green Bay, if the Lambeau Soliloquy was my finale, I’m good.

Besides, NCAA schools for years have largely kept out media; all we’re missing is a chance to see a few old-fashioned $100 handshakes with boosters.

What was more noteworthy about Monday’s joint announcement is that the leagues found common cause to work together.

We’ve all seen sports teams in the same city do kumbaya things in a way that suggests a community-hood among them. The reality is they are as cutthroat for market share as any other industry. Same with the leagues.

But the collaborative clear-out of locker rooms is a sidebar to a larger maneuver in this much more serious case. The sports leagues have to consider what happens if federal health officials insist that major events be closed to spectators for a time uncertain.

For obvious reasons, Seattle is at the forefront of the discussions. Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey confirmed for me prior to the game Sunday against Chicago that all the major Seattle teams have been together in steady conversations for weeks with Seattle/King County health officials about consequences and options.

“About every 12 hours in the past week, we’d talk,” he said. “Nobody wanted to get out ahead.”

Another way to put it: No teams want to be left behind.

In the mortally difficult path the teams must walk in the event that major events must be closed off or closed down for public safety, no team wants to seem more crass, or foolish, than another.

Same for the leagues. In no other country in the world are there so many pro (and college) sports leagues that are so successful nationally, and some globally. Teams may have different seasons, but if COVID-19 is indeed a pandemic, it may linger over all seasons and teams, perhaps more than once.

A need for linkage among the sports teams and leagues became more acute Monday afternoon.

Patty Hayes, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, revealed at a press conference a chart that described five levels of actions in response to the spread of disease, a benchmark moment for a region that is the epicenter for the breakout.

Seattle is already at Level 2. Level 4 would involve officials ordering cancellations of major public and large private gatherings and closings of schools, child-care facilities and workplaces. Sports events were not specifically mentioned, but obvious. Level 5? Italy.

“The Level 4 is the one where we’re really in a lot of conversations with all our other public-health colleagues and the CDC,” Hayes said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think we’re going to have more information for you this week on that.”

As stark as it would be to have games free of spectators, or no games at all, there is even a trickier situation: In the event of disruption, when and how would the decision be made to resume games?

Since federal health officials say a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away from mass distribution, a green light from health departments in Seattle and nationwide may be hard to grant. Even then, teams may not want to be the first to put fans and players at risk. No one knows how that would work.

But at least the effort is being put in.

Sounders president of business operations Peter Tomozawa said Sunday after the match that club majority owner Adrian Hanauer has been active nationally in MLS and other leagues because his hometown and sport is at the heart of everything.

“Adrian’s been a heavily involved in talking to other ownership groups around town throughout the nation and all different levels of sport,” Tomozawa said. “This has been a yeoman’s effort by the entire club to really kind of formulate a plan.

“People are looking at us and how we behave here in Seattle.”

Good to see the Sounders, to borrow another Lynchian aphorism, are all ’bout that action, boss. Because our mentals are about to be tested.



  • Kevin Lynch

    I am in Palm Springs now and people here are trying to get a grip on the cancellation of the Indian Wells tennis tournament. Let me try to put parameters on this sports event cancellation. The BNP Paribas sponsored tournament is the ‘5th major’ – a hugely important competition with the top 20 players in the world, men and women, typically playing. Attendance? 450,000 over the two weeks of the event. That’s 10 or 12 Sounders games. It’a almost like cancelling the Masters tournament at Augusta. The financial impact on the Coachella Valley here is enormous. How the rescheduling gets done, as you mentioned Art, is going to be a nightmare. There are NO two week openings within the world wide tennis calendar. And late spring and summer down here are probably out due to temperatures. It may be best to aim for early October, past the Slam season, but that conflicts with the Asian swing, the Japan and China Opens and maybe even, who knows, a rescheduled slot for the Olympics, which most top tennis players are looking forward to. The Coachella Music Festivals are also rumored to be looking at that time period here in the desert. Nightmare logistics.

    • art thiel

      On sports that tour like tennis, typically the calendars are full, so it’s a cancellation. It’s a shame, but get ready for more throughout the sports world. Mariners likely to open in Peoria.

  • rosetta_stoned

    I’ll be hiding in my Y2K bunker, thank you.

  • Kirkland

    The German ice hockey league just cancelled the rest of its season, right in the middle of its playoffs to boot. This is the non-labor season cancellation I recall in my lifetime.

    • art thiel

      I assume you mean “first,” — yes, the first of many globally. Gov. Inslee will announce Wednesday a ban on gatherings more than 250 people.

  • jafabian

    Let’s say the numbers of people affected doubles by the end of April and triples before summer begins. Will sports leagues, including college, NASCAR, tennis and golf, be willing to all out cancel until further notice? Or at least play for an online audience only? Or even the Olympics? Sports have been slowly heading that way anyway. The A’s have discontinued their radio broadcast in favor of streaming instead. (But have kept their Spanish broadcast. Wonder what the White House thinks of that?) The NBA no longer is insistent of arenas seating 25,000, deciding that Barry Ackerly was correct that a more intimate setting is better for the game. Multi-billion dollar TV contracts and streaming content over more and more mobile devices makes sporting events playing for only a virtual audience closer and closer to becoming a reality.

    Trying to balance the what’s the right thing to do for the public and the right thing for investors and sponsors is what faces the sports business now. It seems like they’ll make the right choice before government officials do it for them. But I’ve been wrong before.