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Billy Reed: Happy New Year (truly!); we remember weird stuff as we leave 2020, some good too

Happy new year to everyone, and I mean that with more sincerity than ever. Last year was such a disaster, due to all the worldwide havoc caused by the Coronavirus pandemic that even to mention 2020 is the same as using a curse.

The world of sports was hardly immune to the crisis. At both the college and pro levels, so many games were canceled or postponed, and so many teams decimated by players who got the virus, that it was difficult to make much sense of it.

For example, are Alabama and Ohio State, who will play for the national football championship on Jan. 11, really the best two teams, or just the best to escape serious player losses due to the virus? It beats me and it probably beats you, too.

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.

You want weird? The last year gave us weird. The NCAA basketball tournament was canceled. Major events in horse-racing, golf, and other sports either weren’t held – the British Open golf tournament, for example – or moved to strange places on the calendar.

Naturally, games were played with only a few live bodies in the stands. The noise of crowds was piped in to provide a game-like background and cardboard cutouts of fans were used to make it appear that some of the seats were filled.

Many felt that high school and college sports should have taken a pass on their seasons. But the players wanted to play and lot of parents agreed with them. In the case of big-time college sports, of course, there were financial considerations.

To cite one example, the University of Kentucky athletics department announced it will lose $135 million for the year, mostly due to lack of ticket and concessions revenue. Nobody can take a hit like that and continue to honor coaches’ multi-million contracts for very long.

The No. 1 sports story of the year, in my opinion, came from the world of golf. It had nothing to do with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, or any of the winners of the three major championships that were played. (Quick now, name the winners of the Masters, U.S. Open, and PGA Championship without referring to Google.)

No, it dealt with an amateur golfer named Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States. He more time on the links than any of his 44 predecessors. He spent more time chipping and putting than he did working on a national plan to deal with the Coronavirus.

I am not making that up.

The gifted writer Rick Reilly, one of my former colleagues at Sports Illustrated, did us a great favor by writing a book about how Trump cheats at golf. Entitled Commander-in-Cheat, it documents how Trump will do anything to win. A golfer himself, Rick points out how big an embarrassment Trump is to a sport that values honesty and integrity more than any other.

“Trump just doesn’t cheat at golf,” Reilly writers. “He cheats like a Three-Card Monte dealer. He throws it (the ball), boots it, and moves it. He lies about his lies. He fudges and foozles and fluffs. At Winged Foot, where Trump is a member, the caddies got so used to seeing him kick his ball back into the fairway that they came up with a nickname for him: ‘Pele.’”

Reilly claims that Trump has become a pariah to many in the golf world. A lot of good players refuse to play a round with him. Woods was an exception, and Trump even cheated on him. He just doesn’t care because he has no conscience.

I should add a disclaimer here. I love golf, but I’ve always been a hacker. So I seek out people who play at my lowly level and we set the rules before we play. Sometimes we allow mulligans on almost every shot and say that all putts within three feet of the cup are good.

I don’t see that as cheating. I see that as working out a way for all of us to play by the same rules. Our goal is mostly to enjoy ourselves, and that makes us a different animal from the professionals and serious amateurs.

The difference is that Trump, who’s no worse than a 10-handicap player, claims to play by the strict rules of golf. He claims he doesn’t cheat despite countless eyewitness who will contradict him.

I also must mention the horrible beating Trump gave sportsmanship after he lost the election to Joe Biden.

In most sports, especially golf, good sportsmanship means more than just playing by the rules. Winners are expected to respect their opponents by being modest. Losers are expected to give the winners their due and not make excuses.

Trump’s response to his loss to Biden was the completely make up a story that the Democrats rigged it and stole his victory. He told and retold this fiction instead of focusing on all the citizens suffering grave personal and professional hardships due to the ravages of the virus.

Trump repeatedly too his bogus story to various courts and came away with a record that was something like 1-50 (his one victory was over a technicality and didn’t affect the vote in that state). I couldn’t help recalling Trump telling his cult members that “you’re going to win so much you’ll get tired of it.”

Of course, many of his predecessors experienced bitter and crushing defeats. But for the good of the country and the sanctity of peaceful transition, they swallowed their bile, congratulated the winner, and urged support for him.

This is called character, something foreign to the Commander-in-Cheat.

For contrast Reilly offers the story of Katie Wynja, a high school player in South Dakota.

“She was about ready to win the state championship in a rout,” writes Reilly, “when she realized she’d signed for a 4 on a hole when she’d actually made a 5. Nobody else knew. Wouldn’t have made a lick of difference in the outcome. But she immediately told officials, who had no choice but to disqualify her. She lost not only the individual title, but her team’s state title.

Jack Nicklaus noticed and tweeted, “Congrats to this young lady for using golf as a vehicle to teach us all life lessons on honesty and integrity.”

Funny thing, but nobody has ever said anything like that about Trump.

But pushing Trump aside, where he belongs, the year past wasn’t completely devoid of happy stories. The Vanderbilt football team used a female kicker named Sarah Fuller, breaking the sex barrier in big-time college football.

Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Matt Bauer won the franchise its first Cy Young award; Authentic beat Tiz the Law in a Kentucky Derby held on Sept. 5; the Dodgers and Lakers turned Los Angeles into Title Town; and Trinity High of Louisville rolled to the 6A state championship behind a defense that allowed a yard or so per game.

And wait: This just in from Starkville, Mississippi: The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team just snapped a six-game losing streak by defeating Mississippi State in double-overtime.

Maybe 2021 really will be a happy year.

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