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Billy Reed: As COVID-19 invades college football, can’t we just say health is more important than playing?


The latest information from the sports coronavirus front was a stunner: National runner-up Clemson announced that 23 football players had tested positive of the for the cunning disease.

As fate would have it, the Louisville Cardinals are scheduled to play at Clemson on Saturday, Sept. 12. That would be the Cards’ second game of the season, following their season opener on Thursday, Sept. 3, against N.C. State.

But if you’re a U of L parent, do you really want your son to play against the Tigers? And from Clemson’s viewpoint, do you really want to play Louisville and other top foes with a depleted roster? Wouldn’t it be better just to cancel football until more is known about the mysterious virus and even a vaccine developed?

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.

However, sports people don’t think that way, and never mind the 118,000 Americans who have died from the virus in only three or four months. In refusing to act quickly on what he initially called a “hoax,” the man who lives in the White House has only made a bad situation worse.

Clemson is hardly the only university to report positive tests for its players. Houston stopped all activities when six athletes tested positive. At Ohio State and Indiana, players have been asked to sign pledges to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.

The NFL also isn’t immune. The league recently announced that running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys was among several players who had tested positive. What if Elliott’s positive came in January instead of June? The whole playoff system could be undermined.

The guidelines to fighting Coronavirus include no physical contact with humans outside the family living at home together and maintaining “social distancing,” which is defined as staying at least six feet away from others.

But football is a sport that thrives on contact and social un-distancing. Tackling and blocking, in other words. So how in the name of Terry Bradshaw can football be played under the current conditions? It can’t, that’s all, and Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens is one of few who has said as much out loud.

“I’ve seen all the (league) memos on that,” Harbaugh said on 105.7 The Fan, “and to be quite honest with you, it’s impossible what they’re asking us to do. Humanly impossible. So we’re going to do everything we can do. We’re going to space, we’re going to have masks. But, you know, it’s a communication sport. We have to practice.”

In the college ranks, however, coaches and commissioners are kidding themselves, and their fans, with Trump-like bluster and promises. “We’ll play football games,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby. The SEC, said Commissioner Greg Sankey, is “preparing to play football as scheduled, and preparing to adjust to the circumstances around the virus.”

Whatever that means.

One powerful voice of reason belongs to Scott Stricklin, a former sports information director at Kentucky who is now athletics director at Florida. Here’s what Stricklin said to reporter Heather Dinch of USA Today: “My motto has been, ‘Predict nothing and prepare for everything. Anybody who tells you they know right now is making it up.”

I’m more of a college fan than an NFL devotee so I’ll be interested in what the university presidents who allegedly run the NCAA are inclined to do. Will they be stand-up folks, even if it means defying some big boosters and donors? Or will they just do what they usually do, which is stick their heads in the sand and hope it all goes away.

If there is a season, most of the early games will be played in near-empty stadiums. But if a team goes a couple of home games without incident, you can bet the ticket office will start lobbying the athletic director to at least let them sell some tickets. After all, at most universities, football is the engine that generates the most revenue.

But unless the coronavirus protocols are suddenly lifted – and I can’t see that happening anytime soon – it’s hard to see how anybody is going to play football in 2020. I’m O.K. with that, especially if it makes the universities face up to the fact that they should be more interested in producing good doctors and nurses than entertainers.

In other words, we now know for certain that academics are far more important than athletics. We had learned we can get along without entertainers, but not without medical personnel, researchers, scientists, and competent administrators.

College football also could use the time off to do some badly needed self-evaluation. 
Does a head coach really need that many assistants? Is too much money invested in football scholarships? Do most schools really need posh practice facilities and football dorms. With so many fans suffering economic losses due to the coronavirus, shouldn’t athletic directors be more concerned with lowering ticket prices rather than raising them?

That’s how they should use a season off. But it should be remembered that most football people are set in their ways. By gawd, we’re going to play football and no sissy virus is going to stop us. Their skulls are so thick that many probably could have played without helmets.

I hate to break the news to them, but life and health are more important than football. If I were the parent of a player, I’d paraphrase an old Johnny Paycheck song when talking to coaches:

I been workin’ in this factory
For nigh on fifteen years
All this time I watched my woman
Drownin’ in a pool of tears
And I’ve seen a lot of good folks die
That had a lot of bills to pay
I’d give the shirt right offa my back
If I had the guts to say
Take this job and shove it
I ain’t working here no more


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One Comment

  1. Dennis Keith Webb says:

    Why is U.K. not testing ALL returning athletes for Covid-19? 50-85% of ALL Covid-19 infections show NO SYMPTOMS. U.K will be putting hundreds at risk by not testing every returning U.K. athlete.

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