BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 07/22/2020

Thiel: Threat is real; NFL players nix fake games

The ploy by NFL players to Twitterbomb owners into ditching fake games was clever. But the hard part looms: Playing a collision sport outside a bubble in a pandemic.

Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman were among players who pulled off a shrewd maneuver in negotiations with owners.  / Drew McKenzie, Sportpress Northwest

Some issues remain undecided, but it seems as if players negotiating with the NFL about the start of the season have succeeded in leveraging the pandemic to eliminate a blight upon the heartland.

There will be no exhibition football games in 2020.

The public-health disaster and its subsequent restrictions preclude a proper national celebration. That doesn’t mean you can’t throw glitter and yell hosannas at someone six feet away.

Never was there a more empty sports vessel than fake pro football, with the possible exception of Howard Schultz. The public was charged full price to watch players 60 through 90 on the roster fight to be No. 53 for the opener. And all such hamstring-pullers were televised regionally and some nationally.

The scam has gone on for decades, yet accepted with a sort of a collective Trump University-level shrug. I get the value proposition about players needing practice time on the field and coaches wanting game conditions to test people and plays. But nobody besides them needs to see it, especially to pay to see it.

When I buy a theater ticket to see a movie, I don’t need to see Tom Cruise huddling with scriptwriters or arguing with the lighting crew. I just want see him running from rooftop to rooftop beneath a spray from a helicopter gunship. The film industry and I have an understanding. Not so for pro football.

The elimination of preseason games, at least for 2020, was one several concessions made by owners Tuesday to keep the potential season between the guardrails, according to multiple media reports.

Somehow, the sides have waited until now — the Seahawks and most teams are supposed to report to training camps Tuesday — to bargain terms and conditions to traverse covid-19 without a net; that is, no bubble.

Since things epidemiologically get a little worse every day, players grow more apprehensive. It’s their butts, as well as their families’ hindparts. So the players unfurled a clever ploy Sunday that gave them instant leverage.

They avalanched Twitter from all directions, claiming victimhood with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. Since the audience is a sports nation that feels as players do — vulnerable to nature and to a leader who abandoned his post — they won the day. The owners sank like a tweet from Eric Trump.

One of the most effective torpedoes was fired by the increasingly emboldened Russell Wilson.

Nothing beats playing the preggers card to make the owners seem like the most dastardly of scoundrels. Russell, my man, you’ve gone from the house guy to insurgent.

Having once agreed to go to three fake games, the owners dropped to two, and settled for none. The owners wanted less covid-19 testing, the players got more. The owners wanted more padded practices, the players got less.

If the players are Muhammad Ali, the owners are Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder.

Still to go is an argument about how to share revenue losses regarding the absence of fans in-house, which is almost a certainty as virus cases continue to spike in numerous NFL states.

The owners seek a big cut in the salary cap of 2021 to off-set 2020. The union wants to keep the cap flat at $198.2 million per team, and spread the damage over future caps from 2022-30.

But that’s a money issue that can be tabled until after the safety protocols are in place. Negotiating tactics aside, the players have to feel as secure as this scheme will allow, then get themselves physically ready after previous practices in a mini-camp and organized teams were lost to the virus.

It’s been a long time since real ball. The calendar has been kinder to the NFL than any other team sport. Pushing the first games into September provides time to see whether the U.S. can lose its World’s Dumbest Rich Country title.

Everyone understands that the football-injury risk is going be higher, as will be the frequency for mistakes by rookies and lameness by new coaching staffs.

Most of all, NFL and MLB are taking the biggest chances as the only major team sports trying to pull off a season outside a bubble. They are traveling to road games, living in  homes and colliding with each other on the field of play, swapping bodily juices in  inevitable disregard of social distancing.

Once the protocols are known, it’s likely at least a handful of NFL players will opt out. The debate between health and money is the great unknown, particularly if more than a trickle of players in camp prior to padded practices test positive. If transmission can’t be stopped then, travel and games won’t make it better.

But at least if a player gets thrown into 14-day quarantine, he’ll know the hill he went down on wasn’t a sucker’s play of a fake game.


  • coug73

    As we get closer the charade of confidence in C-19 protections for team sports fails to satisfy participants. Baseball on Friday? Odds the baseball season plays out to a positive conclusion?

    • art thiel

      I think they will start a season in which they’ve already surrendered 102 games. Odds are against the final 60, but by how much? Couldn’t tell you. You’re asking me to predict random human behavior and untrackable virus distribution. If I could do such things, I’d be working for Pfizer making a tad more than SPNW.

      • coug73

        I watched Walker stride off the mound after striking out a batter and spit. During a irregular, 60 game season, does he get a warning or is he tossed out of the game?

        • art thiel

          Not sure, but I’m almost certain he gets a reminder/warning. Repeated abusers might face a team shaming.

  • Parts

    Just curious how position group meetings are going to work? Via Zoom? Otherwise all would take is for a teams practice squad QB to test positive. That team would have to quarantine all the QBs, the QB coach and any coach or trainer who came in contact with all of them for 2 weeks. You could probably add in the center and any player who shared a huddle with them too. It would work the same way with any position. “Meh, we can get by two weeks without any [insert position group here].” Are we going to have a division winner who won their division due to forfeits?

    Needless to say, I’m a bit skeptical of the whole deal.

    • Chris Alexander

      I certainly share your skepticism. But, from a practical standpoint, if the players (QBs in your scenario) are wearing masks during an in-person position group meeting and/or if they are sitting at least 6 feet apart and maintain the social distancing when entering and leaving the room, then even if one of them tested positive, you wouldn’t “need” to quarantine the whole group.

      Is the whole thing a gigantic crap shoot? You bet! But they can at least try to influence the results via testing, social distancing, mask-wearing, etc.

      • art thiel

        I’ve always said the leagues have a business obligation to try. They tried to think of everything, but they can do nothing about each state winging it with their own politically driven protocols. National sports leagues need national protocols, and they’re not getting it.

    • art thiel

      Meetings will include masks and social distancing, and all participants will have been tested regularly. So the protocols will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk.

      The forfeit issue brings up a bigger question: At what point do multiple starters in quarantine on multiple teams invalidate a championship season? I don’t have an answer, but I hope the owners and union talked about the scenario.


  • Kirkland

    I heard an Giants season ticket holder rationalize the exhibition games this way: He considered his $X season payment as for the eight regular season games, and the two preseason games as free throw-ins. Imaginative, but fans shouldn’t have to use such mental gymnastics. The owners make only a small fraction of their revenue from tickets, why not offer preseason games at discounts or giveaways to youth groups? (I know, greed, but they could write it off as “goodwill” on the balance sheet.)

    The MLS and NWSL bubble tournaments are the most practicable solutions to this issue, but then they’re only for a few weeks. For MLB and the NFL, where travel is necessary, I could only suggest having the players staying in a Residence Inn-like setting during this season. That does mean keeping players from their families for 3-4 months, and requiring a quarantine if they have to leave the bubble for a personal emergency. Not ideal.

    • art thiel

      Here’s an idea: Charge fair-market for the eight regular-season games and have the season ticket-holders give away preseason tickets to a list of youth-sports agencies and community services who can use them as rewards for deeds by kids.

      Regarding the varying approaches, as I mentioned, the vulnerabilities are the travel and the contacts with non-screened personnel outside the bubble. It’s also asking a lot of rich, bored 20-somethings to behave for three months.

  • James

    Nice flip flop. A month ago you argued the players did not drive the NFL.


    • art thiel

      They’ve landed blows. The fight isn’t over.

  • Husky73

    If the Trump’s were the Cortleones, Eric would be Fredo.

    • art thiel

      I know where there’s 53 Fredos.

  • jafabian

    DangeRuss makes valid points and I’m sure many around the NFL have similar positions. It’s irresponsible but not surprising that the NFL is making up rules as the upcoming season is approaching. And what about fan safety? So if fans are now required to wear masks will food concessions still be open? Last I heard you have to remove your mask to eat and drink and I doubt the ushers can or want to be the mask police. Or will there be designated eating areas?

    Seems to me the season isn’t worth it considering how unprepared the NFL is. And that could cost someone their life. And just one life is one too many when the season can easily be closed down and prepared the right way in 2021.

    • art thiel

      The fan question is moot for now, since they won’t be invited. But it will be timely when they return, because the virus may still lurk. And I do understand a little of the owners’ slows: Nobody’s done this before.

  • Fu Bar

    And yet, just two weeks ago Sherman, Erik Harris and Deshaun Watson accuse the NFL of hypocrisy by having the audacity to dare and tell an NFL player what to do in banning the post-game jersey swap in the name of safety. So, which is it guys? You want safety protocols in place or not? Oh, I get it, you want to pick and choose only those that favor veteran players’ job security, getting paid the most money and playing the fewest snaps possible. Got it. So, really, it has nothing to do with safety. You just want to do what you want, when you want, how you want. Hmmmmm … guess that truth doesn’t play so well in a tweetstorm. Perhaps the players have their own brand of hypocrisy as well.

  • BD

    I come in here every once in a while just to remember what good sports writing the Seattle newspapers used to have. Where have you gone, Clare Farnsworth (think Simon and Garfunkel). At least this dude, Art Thiel, is still stomping about.

    Hey Art? Do Bob Condotta a golden, would you? Teach that boring dude how to write? Holy crimoly, what a maroon. He’s like reading wallpaper. Completely white wallpaper. No pattern.

    But Art Thiel? Reading an article by Art Thiel is like jumping into a time machine and taking a ride back to a moment when there was such a thing as a professional sports writer. Where only the best were hired and only a few were read. Now? Sheeeit, the only bonafides required is some site where you “cut your teeth” for three hours “working” out of your mom’s basement. Where they confuse the words alliterate with illiterate (they don’t understand the former because they’re the latter). Some of these dudes are like reading a guy masturbate. Which I guess is ok if you’re into that. Condotta doesn’t even give me a tingle.

    So thank you Art Thiel for being you…you keep writin’ and I’ll keep readin’…you make me tingle. I’ll never quit you, man.

  • DJ

    Thanks Art – it’s always nice to be able to vent about irrationalities such as all of what preseason games have been made into. Especially from a bit higher vantage point.

    I suppose I should be grateful for the NFL’s dragging out the conversation of the 2020 season and breaking the monotone that is entertainment not as usual during the pandemic.

    The reality is that playing football increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. No amount of testing can stop spreading in the past, can only help slow future infections, but isn’t 100% effective, and does nothing when a player is asymptomatic. There is no vaccine in the near future.

    The season shouldn’t and won’t happen – I predict. The continuance of the conversation keeps the NFL relevant. A good debate is whether dragging out the inevitable is due to ignorance or by design.

    A more effective use of deep NFL financial resources would be to champion the fight against the pandemic. Shut ‘er down for the year, now, then use their influence to turn around the ignorant and self righteous that continue to fan the flames on the pandemic. Maybe even host community events to aide those most negatively effected by the pandemic. All would be a worthwhile investment towards the future, helping us get to a stable normal, and would keep the NFL in the conversation, perhaps more and printing $$ sooner than the inevitable quit on the season alone.

    BTW Thanks for a strong thrust to the gut of the Schultz punching bag….. We Will Never Forget #Supersonics