BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/25/2020

Thiel: Will some decline to return to play?

The pro leagues are edging closer to a seasonal re-start. But what if individual players think it’s unsafe, even if the unions agree to play?

In the regular-season finale at the Clink against the Seahawks, 49ers RB Raheem Mostert gained 57 yards in 10 carries. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

If pro athletes need training camps before the re-start of sports, so do fans.

Here’s a prep question for what I’m calling the new covid-based sports world (What? You thought the virus was going away, like a miracle?) to get your sports brain and heart going again:

Will you accept, with understanding, a decision by any of your favorite team’s players to sit out games, and perhaps whatever passes for a season, for reasons of personal safety?

As we daily edge closer to a re-opening of the sports-industrial complex, the discerning fan needs to exercise the dormant ethical/moral muscles (if they existed), to work up a response for what seems like an inevitable development.

As the terms and conditions are negotiated for the contact sports (golfers, tennis players, race drivers, etc., please excuse yourselves from his discussion), players’ unions and individual athletes will be faced with decisions unprecedented in the history of organized sports.

In the absence of a vaccine or successful therapies, coupled with the inconsistent supply of accurate testing kits and the extraordinary lift required to keep the playing environment virus-free, is the risk worth it?

For the vast majority, the answer is yes. Pro sports-team players understand their careers are fragile, likely less than three years. Most will get one shot at making a roster in the major sports. So no matter the risk, passing on a chance for even one year at a salary many won’t match for the rest of their lives is almost impossible to imagine.

That is the sort of rationalization football players rely upon to continue to play despite increasing evidence that the mandatory collisions in the sport can lead to brain trauma that produces the horrors of CTE.

Covid-19 is different. The threat is not years down the road; it is immediate.

Many athletes have seen the consequences in real time among family, friends and neighbors. More than 80 percent of the NBA’s rostered players are African American, 70 percent in the NFL. About 23 percent of active MLB players were born in Latin America. The communities of color have been disproportionately blasted by covid-19.

While it’s true that more than 90 percent of confirmed cases are not fatal, that point ignores the long-term mental and physical health damage to many victims of this unique disease, the health consequences to others if/when patients were asymptomatic, and the pressure put on the already exhausted health-care system.

Raheem Mostert, the 49ers’ running back who rushed for 220 yards in the NFC Championship, is among the few NFL athletes so far to articulate publicly his apprehension.

On March 4, he backed out of a public autograph session over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, an action that drew criticism for over-reaction. By March 13, virtually every sport in America had shut down.

“It was one of those things where we knew that something like this was going to take place, and we wanted to be prepared,” he said on a video call with Bay Area reporters Wednesday. “That’s why I was the first one to start thinking about what’s going on in the upcoming months.”

Mostert remains with his family in Cleveland. He knows will have to go back to work. He also knows the NFL and the 49ers won’t be able to guarantee his safety when practice resumes.

He said virus fears have moved Mostert’s wife, Devon, to tears.

“She understands that, no matter what, this is my job,” Mostert said. “I have to do what my job requires me to do, which is all fair. She wants football to be back and sports to be back, in general. We don’t know what it’s going to take in order for us to be back out there on the field, testing every week or playing in a different state or what-have-you.

“We just got look at the brighter side and hope and pray that everyone is looking out for each other.”

Hope and pray. The sentiment is understandable, but the value of those tactics against the virus are unproven. Mostert’s misgivings are legit.

That feeling likely is prominent in a small but influential class of veteran athletes who have made a lot of money. They have the luxury of putting safety first. They are the ones who most likely would consider opting out, particularly if the shortened pre-season training increases the risk of injury. They also would be the kind of athlete that is a difference-maker, a guy whose absence would have a material impact on winning.

Even if the unions agree to restrictions on player behavior, game operations and travel in order to re-start, or start anew, will it not be possible for individuals, for reasons of safety, to say no and opt out of their spots and salaries for 2020? To borrow from the rules of the Vietnam war, can there be a status of conscientious objector?

The owners certainly wouldn’t like it. The chances for long-shot team to get lucky in a half-season of high disruption is higher, and the teams losing stars for non-injury reasons see their investment damaged even further than the shutdown has already. Owners would probably sound as churlish as Jerry Dipoto.

Interviewed on 710 ESPN radio, via the Seattle Times, the Mariners GM was talking mostly about potential player complaints around compensation in negotiations for an agreement to re-start, and wasn’t having it.

“My general thought is just, go play,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, we’re very fortunate to do what we do, and whatever our job is in professional sports. In this moment in time, and I guess any moment, my urge is, as we develop culture and as we develop character with our club, understand that it’s a big world around you and there are a lot of people suffering. Don’t whine. Just go play.”

Dipoto sounds a bit like a crotchety grandpa telling his lazy grandkids that back in the day, he used to walk to school five miles in hip-deep snow, uphill both ways. But this is a tad more serious, as in life and death. And it doesn’t fulfill Mostert’s aspiration that everyone look out for each other.

Baseball in particular must thread the needle on so many logistical details in the attempt to assure safety for games played nearly every day that it borders on the absurd. Objecting in part or in whole is not whining, not when 100,000 Americans will have died in the disease’s first four months in the U.S. by the end of the holiday weekend.

Let’s re-state the obvious in Seattle sports: Stefan Frei, Marco Gonzales, Breanna Stewart and Russell Wilson are not essential. The doc, the cop, the bus driver, the grocery clerk and the farm worker are essential.

If one of the non-essentials declines to participate out of fears for safety, I’m OK with that. If the essentials decline to participate, some of us are dead.


  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    Well said Art, Dipoto was obviously talking to a select party. The Mariner ownership, he has to speak the party line or else.

    • art thiel

      I think Dipoto’s sentiments are widespread among all owners and franchise execs. These are desperate people staring into a bleak abyss, and they have to make near-immediate decisions without knowing the path of the virus. Any delay is infuriating.

      On the other hand, none of them are swapping spittle in a collision with the catcher diving for a foul pop.

      • Larry StoneB

        Would refusing to play be akin to taking a knee before a game? Unamerican?

        • Archangelo Spumoni

          Probably. And looking wimpy to at great, steaming pile of Americans. Just like a certain “leader” with respect to masks.

          • Larry StoneB

            We know whom of you speak.

        • art thiel

          It’s different. Taking a knee is a political/social statement. Opting out of a game for safety is a health choice, although those who think the virus is a hoax would disagree.

          • rosetta_stoned

            The virus isn’t a hoax. The overreaction to it is.

          • art thiel

            Some of your fellow MAGAs disagree.

      • Williec

        After talking about “building character,” Dipoto’s the one doing the whining.
        He’s drops another notch on my scale…not far to go to bottom.
        Thanks again for the good article.

  • Robert Rhodes

    With respect to Dipoto’s comments, are there two cultures in conflict? “We are all in this together.” and “When you aren’t getting what you want, blame the players.”

    • Husky73

      I know that I am changing the subject, but I am experiencing Dipoto fatigue. I realize that Stanton extended him, but Dipoto’s shuffling of the deck has not produced much more than a salary dump and more shuffling. The Mariners are younger, but as far as I can tell, not better. They remain a last place team. Dipoto tore it down (with the owner’s approval), and I would like to see someone else take over from here and build it up. My suggestion is to move Servais (a smart guy) into the GM’s chair and to hire a proven winner (like Piniella was) as manager. They missed the boat on Girardi.

      • art thiel

        I think the terms for Dipoto were approval for the tear-down, and a commitment to see it through. I think that’s fair. I can’t possibly make a judgment about his potential for success without seeing a single MLB game by most of his acquisitions.

        • Husky73

          There you go again, with no second e in judgment.

          • art thiel

            Acceptable usage, but I changed it for you.

    • art thiel

      The conflict likely will be laid bare in the MLB negotiations. I’m sure both sides agree in broad terms about wanting to assure the game’s survival. But the means to that end includes only one side taking the physical risk daily, and how much cash will be needed to mitigate that risk.

  • Lodowick

    Cogent. Good food for thought. We’re “knee deep in the big muddy”, to quote a song lyric about crossing a big river. It’s difficult to know what to recommend.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. I fear the big muddy is above our knees.

      • Lodowick

        Waist deep or neck deep, you tell me. Read the lyrics for Pete Seeger’s song. Relevant. Big time. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.

  • Stephen Pitell

    You left out one very important issue here which is what about those who are at high risk? We know the death rates for people 20-40 are below 1% unless they have underlying health issues relevant to Covid 19, I’m sure some players have such issues, but many coaches, etc. are over 65 and fall into the high risk categories. Surely, those people would be exempt from ostracism for declining to participate?

    Perhaps the bigger issue is will players return to their families where they might spread Covid 19 to loved ones and beyond? This is going to be a tough nut to crack, and I am Jonesing for sports, especially football, but I still remember watching the XFL with packed stadiums while I was already in lockdown.

    • art thiel

      I presumed most would be familiar, but yes, it’s worthy of mention. There are numerous athletes who play with underlying conditions, such as the Sounders’ Jordan Morris, who has diabetes. And numerous coaches, umpires and team staffers who are over 65.

      And remember, mortality rate is not the lone bad consequence of he virus.

  • Husky73

    We still don’t know what we don’t know. Everything (even a haircut) is a risk.

    • art thiel

      Throughout life, we make risk/reward decisions. But the degree of immeasurable threat to others is what makes this decision more complicated.

      • Husky73

        My wife gave me a haircut tonight.

        • art thiel

          Weed whip or brushcutter?

          • Husky73


  • James

    An athletic-strength face mask has to be developed for participants to wear. Absent that any attempt to have a full season is doomed to failure.

    • art thiel

      Such a device is being considered for football, to be worn inside the face mask. As for hoops, hockey, soccer, ya got me.

  • Seattle Lifer

    I personally cannot understand anybody taking a known risk from an unknown. I worked 42 years as an electrician building Boeing buildings, high rises down town and I took risks, but they were a risk I could understand and “see.” A virus? No way, especially in a time limited career. You lose a season, no big deal, you contract a virus and you never play again due to permanent lung damage, why risk it? As far as management goes from ownership on down, they need to be in the same close quarters as the players if things start up. Let them take the same risks. It is not reasonable for people up the food chain working from home, taking minimal health risks to ask others to accept risks form an unknown. Everyone knows you can take a ball to the head and never play again, you can see the ball and make a judgement whether to duck or stay put. How do you judge your risk with a virus?

    • art thiel

      The greater threat goes beyond the consequence to the individual. The threat of transmitting the disease to teammates and family while asymptomatic is what makes viruses — and this new one in particular — so diabolical. Beanballs aren’t contagious.

      • Seattle Lifer

        You write for a living, I don’t do it as well…

        • art thiel

          You did well. Thanks for the correspondence.

  • tor5

    As much as I love watching the Hawks, and how much they help me get through dreary Seattle autumns, I can’t disagree with your conclusion that playing this nonessential game isn’t worth anyone’s life. Still, it’s difficult to think about this rationally with how politicized it’s become. Your analogy with football-related brain trauma is apt. I bet economists could provide a formula for comparison, which would be something like [risk to player = probability of event X probability of debilitation or death X degree of debilitation X years of debilitation]. And I bet this would show CTE to be the greater risk. In other words (and to be a bit contrarian), I wonder if covid-19 adds a relatively small increment in risk given the risks they’re already accepting. Lots of unknowns, and I could be wrong, but just something to think about.

    • art thiel

      The flaw of logic in comparing the virus with CTE, cancer rates, war casualties, car wrecks, etc., is that none are transmitted from human to human. The other deaths are perhaps avoidable by our own decisions/actions, but the only decision we can make now, absent a vaccine, to try to avoid the virus is to quarantine.

      When you think about what others have been asked to sacrifice to help mitigate previous existential threats, it isn’t that hard.

      • tor5

        It’s a very good point. Maybe the better analogy is driving drunk. I can assume the risk for killing myself, but not for killing others. This is such a difficult problem for all of us. I do feel for the people who are out of work (not pro athletes per se, but so many others who are affected) (and not to be confused with those who, bizarrely, take guns to protests).

        • James

          The white trash who take guns to protests should be euthanized.

  • jafabian

    Ernie Johnson declined being part of the coverage team for The Match Part II because of his son who has to use a ventilator. With a broadcaster who’s such a part of the NBA landscape taking that stance I’m sure at least that will get some in the sports world to think. Ernie isn’t the only person in sports who’s life is affected with underlying health conditions for themselves or those around them. Look no further than Jordan Morris who has diabetes. There are many among players and club employees who have a family member or someone close to them who would be at risk if exposed to the disease. Is the money worth the risk? Unfortunately there are those with Jerry Dipoto’s attitude of “just go play” who are in a position of authority. So if a team orders a player to play and they end up being diagnosed with Coronavirus is the team liable?

    Too many questions and not enough answers.

    • art thiel

      Hadn’t read about Johnson. Thanks.

      I’m sure the leagues in the negotiations with players union will try to limit, if not eliminate, liability. I’m eager to see how that works.

  • Chris Alexander

    I think this is kind of a moot point. I suspect that most fans are going to support the players who choose to error on the side of personal safety in the current environment. The question I have is …. How will the TEAMS respond?

    Using the NFL as an example, what will a team do when their starting quarterback decides to stay home “out of an abundance of caution”? Will they publicly support him while working behind the scenes to change his mind or will they fine him, put him on the Non-Football Injury List, or maybe even release him?

    And a related question …. Will the Team’s response be uniformly applied? For example, if the starting quarterback and the backup running back, and the 3rd string safety all “opt out” for personal safety reasons, will each be treated the same?

    And it’s not just sports where these questions are going to play out. If you’ve been laid off or furloughed and your employer recalls you, are you going to go? Are you going to feel safe going? Are you going to go ONLY so you don’t risk getting fired? And what will your employer do if you – or any of your coworkers – express reservations or “opt out”?

    To quote another poster, “we don’t know what we don’t know” – on so many levels.

    • jafabian

      Teams will respond as their respective leagues dictate. The leagues will look to see how governments will respond. The White House has been inconsistent and contradictory during the pandemic in their statements regarding COVID 19 so state governments edict will probably be looked at instead. It’s possible they’ll look for that one league to set the example and follow it, possibly how NASCAR is handling things right now.

      • art thiel

        The leagues won’t overstep local/state governments. They were the ones who funded arenas/stadiums.

        NASCAR is like golf and tennis. No necessary physical contact with the opponent. The pit crews can be regulated/protected.

    • art thiel

      It’s true that the same dilemma faces many if not most businesses. The difference is you and many others aren’t emotionally invested in which employees show up for work in 99 percent of those other businesses.

      The questions you’ve asked are exactly the ones the union leaders are asking of owners across sports. For obvious reasons, owners don’t want exceptions. Even the players are reluctant, because they don’t want to be seen as bad teammates, or cowards. And I don’t think owners want to be demonized.

      That’s why re-starting in the middle of a pandemic is so hard. Best to wait.