A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Billy Reed: Good and bad news for sports, but the coronavirus rules — and the rules are changing


A few weeks ago, the National Football League conducted its first virtual draft, and the Cincinnati Bengals, surprising absolutely nobody, used its No. 1 pick to take Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy while leading LSU to the national collegiate championship.

Ordinarily, that would have been a huge story in these parts, with arguments raging on the sports radio talk shows about whether Burrow will be the hapless Bengals’ savior or whether he will never get a fair chance, given the poor quality of his offensive line and receivers.

I’m sure there are places where that type of conversation still exists. Yet it’s difficult to make educated guesses because we’re not even sure there will be an NFL season due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the world economy. When people are not working, well, let’s quote Irish poet W.B. Yates:

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals #1 draft pick.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while
the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Although sports publicists try to be optimistic about the future of their sports, the facts are hard, cold, and grim. Even those who still have enough disposable income to buy tickets may find that tickets aren’t available. The days of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in soldout arenas and stadiums are gone. Games, if they are played at all, will have nobody in the stands, or very small audiences.

TV networks and other sponsors will have to cut back the money they put into sports. Coaches and athletes will have to take significant pay cuts. Travel will be an issue with so many planes grounded. University athletic departments will be scaled down to the bare bones, every sport’s budget will be cut, and some teams might have to be eliminated.

Some football and basketball players may quit their teams or refuse to play because they are concerned about the risk of being exposed to Coronavirus. Who could blame them? If one player tests positive, the entire team could be disqualified from competition.

And so on.

Stamping himself as one of the most proactive athletics directors in the country, Vince Tyra of the University of Louisville already has begun to take some severe, but necessary, measures.

In the last couple of weeks, Tyra has announced that 45 employees have been placed on a 60-day furlough and 40 more have been fired. He said every sport will get a 15 percent budget reduction, and that he and employees making more than $100,000 per year have agreed to a 10 percent salary cut.

Without anybody in the stands, it will be as difficult for the city of Louisville to make its annual $10 million payment as it is for the athletics department to pay the rent. What would happen to Cardinal basketball, which recently received official charges of rule-breaking from the NCAA for the scandals that led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino.

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.

Individual sports such as golf and tennis seem better positioned to survive than team sports, although baseball may have an edge due to the natural distancing of players on the field. But the NFL, NBA, and NHL are a different matter. How do you protect the integrity of those sports while also dealing with the Coronavirus protocols regarding no personal contact and social distancing?

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced that thoroughbred racing may begin at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 16, with nobody except employees in the stands. The industry already has benefitted from internet gambling for years, so that’s a revenue stream that will grow, but probably not enough to offset the losses from no live racing.

The news isn’t all bad.

The bloated bureaucracy of the NCAA will have to be cut dramatically, which should promote efficiency.

Coaches and players no longer will be paid far more than their value to society.

Ticket prices will go down to the point where more people, including students, will be able to afford them.

College and universities no longer will let athletics be the tail that wags the dog.

Without their teams and pro careers to worry about, more athletes will pay more attention to academics, even if they have to take all their classes online.

Nobody knows about summer leagues and camps. The same for high school sports. Public schools simply can’t risk lawsuits by putting athletes at risk.

The Coronavirus already has forced the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments, the Masters golf tournament, the Kentucky Derby, and the opening of the major-league baseball season.

The Derby has been rescheduled for Sept. 5, but it’s 50-50 whether the pandemic will have subsided enough to make that possible. The U.S. Open golf and tennis tournaments have not given up on being contested some time or the other. The same for the Preakness, Belmont, and the college and pro football and basketball seasons.

But where’s the money coming from? To make do, it looks as if the teams and sports we love will have to go on an austerity budget, but even that doesn’t guarantee survival or even a close return to semi-normalcy.

I look forward to seeing the Bengals pay Burrow’s asking price, and then watching him play in Paul Brown Stadium, even with nobody in the seats. But I’m not counting on anything. Nobody knows what the economy will look like a month or two from now, but most experts say the recovery may take years.

Checkers, anyone?


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One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for that pick-me-up, Billy! Doom and gloom.

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