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Billy Reed: About Americans, Ugly Americans, and a world needing first responders more than sports


Fairly early in my career, I made it a point to get to know A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former two-time Kentucky governor who was elected to the baseball. Hall of Fame for what he did during his term as the game’s commissioner from 1946 to ’51.

At that time, there were 16 teams in the major leagues, none west of the Mississippi River, and when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn (now Los Angles) Dodgers told his brethren before the 1946 season that he wanted to sign Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers’ AAA team in Montreal, they voted 15 to Rickey’s one against it.

But Chandler, though a rookie to the job, overruled his bosses and told Rickey he could sign Robinson. Everybody knew that meant that Jackie would move up to Brooklyn as early as 1947, breaking baseball’s color barrier. It was a seminal even not only for baseball but for the entire American culture.

Jackie was dead when Barack Obama became the first black American President in 2008, but what a conversation they could have had. It’s unthinkable that at Easter Weekend 2020, the battle over race and voting rights sill continues in. this country.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Chandler had a stock answer for me and every other reporter who asked how he mustered the courage to open the doors for Robinson. “Billy boy,” he would say, grabbing my arm tightly, “I knew that someday I would meet my maker, and if here were to ask me why I didn’t let that black boy play, I think He would see ‘because of the color of his skin’ as an insufficient answer.”

Today we are getting a lot of insufficient answers about a lot of things, and the race debate is a big part of it.

A couple of years ago, I was arguing with my radio talk-show partner on ESPN680 in Louisville about the one-and-done rule in college basketball. I told him it made a mockery of academic integrity. I told him that if we were ever embroiled in a world crisis, we would need doctors, nurses, scientists, and first responders a lot more than we would need multimillionaires who could dunk a basketball.

I told him the world could survive without entertainers – although, God forbid, I hope it never comes to that – but it couldn’t get along without the aforementioned experts who would use their educations to help us cope with the crisis on a daily basis.

I’m sorry, very sorry, that it took the coronavirus to make my point.

Because of the protocols put in place by the experts, we have been told to go out only when necessary, to avoid large crowds, to wash our hands incessantly, and to avoid getting within six feet of another human. Restaurants and some business have fought back by using home delivery to stay alive.

Overall, I think the nation of Jackie Robinson and Happy Chandler has done well in the first month or so. I also should add another Kentuckian to the Robinson saga. Louisville’s Pee Wee Reese was captain and shortstop of the Dodgers, the most respected man on the team, and he was Robinson’s friend and protector throughout the first couple of ugly seasons.

Because of the protocols, the college basketball season was canceled at the start of the NCAA tournament. The NBA and NHL stopped play, and major-league baseball canceled spring training and the first part of the regular season. For the first time in memory, there will be no Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May, just as there was no Masters golf tournament at Augusta, Ga., in April.

Much to my delight, most of the sports fans I know accepted the absence of games — and the betting on them – without much complaint. This told me they understood the severity of the crisis and its deadly consequences. But, alas, there was another group who believed, and still does, that the whole thing is some kind of “hoax,” as the President of the U.S. initially labeled it, and they complain about what has been taken from them.

To me, they represent the ugliest of Americans. They truly believe that America should never deal with a crisis like coronavirus, because, well, America is superior to the rest of the world. People of color are inherently inferior to white Americans, and the whole blamed thing is the fault of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.

When they meet their maker, I believe this will be an insufficient answer.

I love sports. It has been much of my life. But big money from TV networks, shoe manufacturers, and ticket sales has led to obscene salaries for coaches and some players. It’s the same on the other side of the entertainment business. Singers and actors are paid incredible sums of money because they have one certain skill that we enjoy.

Jackie Robinson and Happy Chandler (Photo from Transylvania University)

Now that we are in this crisis, some of these folks are giving back little or nothing at all. Singer Dolly Parton is an exception. She recently donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt Medical Center for Coronavirus Research. She is hardly the only millionaire living in the United States, but where are the others?

When they meet their maker and He asks that question, anything they say will be an insufficient answer. To whom much is given, much is expected in return. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

If nothing else, we should learn humility the coronavirus. None of us, regardless of our place in life, is more important than a grain of sand on an ocean beach. We still are very much at the mercy of deadly forces beyond our control. If you want to say this could be God’s way of reminding us who’s the boss, you won’t get an argument from me.

I remember the 1990 Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Miami. Bill Curry was the Alabama coach then and he demanded that his players be humble and respectful of their opponents. At one point, an Alabama player caught a touchdown pass and immediately began taunting and trash-talking his defender.

When he to the sideline, an angry Curry was waiting. He chewed out the player before that huge crowd and national TV. And right then I thought, “That’s the kind of coach every father should want for his son.” Because, you see, Curry was about more than football. He was about good sportsmanship and good manners, both of which are in short supply these days.

I’ll be happy when the sports world gets up and running again. We need them to boost our national morale and take our minds off our trouble. But I hope everyone realizes now that they are just games. No more, no less. We know that we can get along without them because, well, we are.


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