BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/13/2020

Thiel: Sudden stop ends sports’ greatest risk

Even the PGA Tour shut down in the middle of its backswing. The astonishing dead stop of the American sports industry has a lot to do with federal government failures.

At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015, Rory McIlroy experienced a little freedom from the crowds, but not like he did Thursday in Florida. / Michael Cohen, USGA

Below in italics is what I started writing Thursday night for posting Friday morning:

Hey, PGA Tour: The sports nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Following the most grimly astonishing 24 hours in American sports history — a least, where no one died — it appears the golfers have the fruited plain to themselves.

For awhile, anyway.

 The Players Championship had its first round Thursday at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL., without a gallery but with a warning from superstar Rory McIlroy.

“All the tour players and people who are involved need to get tested and make sure no one’s got it,” he told reporters before play began. And if there’s a positive test?

“We need to shut it down then,” he said.

I kid you not, at the moment I finished typing that, my phone pinged with a news alert:

The PGA Tour announces it is canceling the remainder of the TPC as well as the next three events . . .

I don’t know whether McIlroy was prophesying, speculating or knew something. What I do know is I’ve run out of hands to slap upon my considerable forehead.

No one knows yet whether a golfer tested positive. What we do know is that the invisible coronavirus bug has brought the previously irresistible American sports machine to a dead stop. Even the industry’s most detached elites, the touring golf pros, have been brought to ground, same as the rest of us.

Epidemiologists will tell you that pandemics have been around for as long as humans have been around to host them. It’s true, but misses a point — never has there been a pandemic at a time when worldwide travel, communications and commercialization have been as easy as they are intense. Nowhere is that better expressed than in sports.

Teams and athletes from around the nation and the world flow almost seamlessly among events on a colossal schedule matrix supported by some fans who travel with them, more fans who await their presences, and all fans who follow them on a multitude of media platforms created by networks that profit from the passion. And then, everyone gambles on everything.

Until . . . full stop. For a bug.

The perpetual avalanche pauses mid-mountain.


America’s most popular team-sports export, the NBA, shocked the world Wednesday afternoon when a positive test for coronavirus in a single player caused it to abruptly suspend the season.

Absent infected players, MLS nevertheless made a similar decision, as did NHL. Even the NCAA caved, sacrificing its ridiculously appealing and lucrative March Madness, stopping one league tourney game at halftime Thursday. MLB ended spring training, and pushed back the season openers a minimum of two weeks.

Then Thursday evening, the PGA shut down the tour practically in the middle of its backswing.

In the interview session before his round, McIlroy made a point that helps explain why the sports leagues and tours had no choice but to slam both feet on the brake pedal — the NBA episode made the unknown real, and scarier than the loss of billions of dollars of revenue.

The idea of players becoming ill — or merely being carriers — then transmitting the virulent COVID-19 to teammates, staffers, opponents and fans was a horror-movie nightmare for the entire industry.

“More than anything, everyone needs to get tested,” McIlroy said. “I saw there’s commercial labs now that are testing at some capacity, I guess, and for us to keep playing on the PGA Tour, all the tour players and people who are involved need to get tested and make sure no one’s got it.

“Because everyone knows you can have it and not have symptoms and pass it on to someone who’s more susceptible to getting very ill from it.”

McIlroy gets it. But like most people in the the U.S., he can’t get tested. Not even rich guys.

The massive failure of the U.S. health-care industry to be prepared with tests for an outbreak of this virulence is the proximate cause of the suddenness of shutdowns by businesses, sports, arts, schools and colleges.

The details of the failure are well explained in this Time magazine story here,  leaving little doubt that the political agendas and decisions of the Trump administration contributed to the delay and derailment of effective responses.

As of Wednesday, the Center for Disease Control and state and public health labs have conducted more than 11,000 tests since mid-January. By comparison, South Korea has tested more than 200,000 of its population of 51 million since January. That is a travesty.

Back to McIlroy’s point: There is no physical way yet to test people without symptoms to clear them for the close-quarters work of snatching a rebound from Lebron, knocking Crosby off a puck, yelling at an umpire or hugging a caddy at the 18th green. For now, that testing capacity needs to go to the under-trained, under-paid, fearful staffs at nursing homes risking their lives to care for nearly helpless patients.

So if shutting down sports, and the other amusements, helps to slow COVID-19 until the federal government gets its sorry act together for a 21st-century response to a 21st-century pandemic, I’m good with that.

No matter how many times I have to re-write a column.



  • skabotnik

    It seems as if the pace at which everything we enjoy is getting shut down is moving faster than the virus itself. Perhaps that’s the only way to get to the “flattening” of the bell curve that is needed to keep us safe and prevent the overwhelming of the system. A part of me wants to believe that having so much taken away that has meaning for ALL of us might have a unifying effect down the road, but I can see the script playing out in advance. If this abundance of caution helps us successfully dodge the bullet and avoid perhaps millions of deaths, at least half of us will say, “See? What was the big deal? This whole thing was blown totally out of proportion.”

    • art thiel

      You’re right. The virus skeptics, with no way to prove a negative, nevertheless will assume a negative take on the decisions this week. All normal electeds understand that when it comes to public health, there’s no choice but to overreact because to under-react is negligence bordering on the criminal.

      But one elected doesn’t understand that.

  • ReebHerb

    Rest assured that the administration is on top of it. Gov. Inslee should have stopped the virus at the borders. How long has California had Bug Stations? If Hillary was president, she would be taking a substantial cut of all toilet paper sales for The Foundation. It’s snowing this morning. Pound sand Greta.

    • coug73

      Ha, ha, he, he, Herb are you posting from Western State Hospital? I wish you good health.

    • dingle

      Nice to know I don’t necessarily have to go to Twitter to get my wingnut talking points for the day.

      • art thiel

        We have them here, a few, but as long as they stay respectful . . .

    • I…uh…um….oh, my. Complete detachment from any thread of reality and truth is not a good thing. Demonstrating that in public is shameful.

      • Archangelo Spumoni

        Mr. Dugout
        Post of the year so far, and thanks for it.

      • art thiel

        The case has been made daily for more than three years.

    • Husky73

      George Will is staring into space….

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Herb, for the view from the 18th century.

  • Kirkland

    Overseas, most leagues were shutting up shop except for the English Premier League. Then within hours of each other, a Chelsea player and Arsenal’s head coach tested positive. Season now suspended. The only sporting event I know of that’s still going on is a biathlon, presumably run with no spectators.

    The last time I recall all games shutting down stateside was 9-11, slightly difference in that we could see the COVID-19 virus coming but not that.

    • art thiel

      That was the last episode. Also happened for JFK’s assassination.

      • Husky73

        I recall some games (not the entire league) being postponed due to civil unrest in the 60s, the aftermath of the MLK assassination, and the LA riots.

  • coug73

    I dropped all my sports packages and went basic TV service. I will have more time to read, chop wood and haul water. Stay healthy.

    • Kirkland

      During the lost NHL season, DirecTV didn’t charge me for my Center Ice subscription. If this goes on longer than a month, maybe cable companies could waive the charge of the sports tier for that time as a goodwill (or P.R.) move. The only “sports” channels I can see that would have current programming are the outdoors/hunting channels.

      • art thiel

        Well, that’s one way to look at saving some coin. I think you should should use you free time to begin the campaign.

    • art thiel

      That’s what Marshawn calls taking care of y’alls mentals.

  • The truth hurts, people. This time, it may (will) kill people. Political decisions overrode public health concerns.That fact is intractable. This administration cares only about itself.

    • ReebHerb

      Did you vote for the Queen of Thieves, Hillary? I’m practicing profiling. Did you know a test kit won’t kill a virus?

      • art thiel

        Ignorance, however, helps a virus. You go, Herb.

    • art thiel

      If COVID-19 recedes in his presidency, he’ll have his excuse to close borders if the Blue Jays win the AL pennant.

  • Husky73

    Great piece of writing, Art……once again, Boswell, Lupica and Thiel.

    • art thiel

      Thank you, kind sir.

  • Tian Biao

    a shocking couple of days, to be sure. I was hoping they would play without fans: that might teach them to appreciate us a little more. A hopeful note: the number two official at the WHO said today that the window in which people are infectious, but do not have symptoms, is very short: less than a day, he said. So there are not very many asymptomatic but infectious people, which was a big concern. another hopeful note: if it goes on much longer, the M’s won’t be able to lose 100 games! yee haw!

    • art thiel

      Thanks for sharing the WHO information. Hadn’t heard that.

      Will pass your Mariners observation on to Jerry Dipoto. He needs to laugh too.

  • 1coolguy

    “little doubt that the political agendas and decisions of the Trump administration contributed to the delay and derailment of effective responses.”
    Reading the column Art, I expected to see an anti-Trump rant, and yes, I was sadly right.
    Time magazine is just another of the anti-Trump, lib cabal who will write anything that will help bring down OUR president. For you to fall in line is really beyond disappointing.
    IF you have seen any of the daily briefings held by Pence with the heads of the CDC, HHS, and all industry leaders to combat this, then possibly you would realize all the powers of the federal government are invested in this, together with industry.
    As simple proof of your sad position on this, I do not recall anything like this when Obama had the H1N1 swine flu epidemic hit the US, which claimed more than 12,000 US lives and 60 MILLION infected.
    So why don’t you set aside your far left vitriol and let this play out. As we are at a total of 41 deaths,17 in ONE Kirkland nursing home, it would appear we will hopefully see many fewer than 12,000 US deaths.
    Of course even if there are, it won’t prevent you and you ilk from piling on, typical Monday morning QB’s.
    Of course I may be completely mistaken concerning whether you wrote a similar column bashing the Obama administration – if you did, please post it, as I do not recall seeing it.

  • Husky73

    Just wondering….let’s say that the baseball season plays a partial season….90 games. Would the players receive 100% of their contract pay (162 games), or would they get 90 games worth?

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      The NBA Players’ Association sent something out that warned their players that they might not be paid for the remainder of the season. “Force Majeure” is the operative phrase in most contracts. The owners have said the players will be paid, but it looks like they didn’t have to.
      That result is the only one I saw at first glance but there is a good chance 100% of baseball players have heard the phrase “Force Majeure” recently.

      Slightly related: here’s a Cincinnati Reds “terms & conditions” ticket agreement:

  • Husky73

    Art, did you take the photo? I love the composition and the shadow.