Halfway through breakfast at Café Luxembourg on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Bryant Gumbel unleashes a spot-on imitation of Will Smith in Concussion, specifically the Oscar-desperate earnestness dripping from the line that serves as a closer for the film’s TV spot: a close-up of Smith barking, “Tell the truth!” and jabbing a finger toward the camera.
Yuks aside, Gumbel doubts the film will be able to do just that. “The mere fact that the NFL is not suing them means the movie’s not very good,” he says.
That kind of blunt assessment is as good an example as any of the hard-hitting, uncompromising investigative journalism he and HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel have become famous for over the last 20 years. The show made its name covering not just the star athletes, but the political, economic and social impact of sports, garnering 26 Emmys, a Peabody, and enough journalism awards to pack a trophy case.
They’ve doggedly pursued the NFL for its shameless attempts to cover up the link between CTE and football, hammered the NCAA for its faux amateurism, exposed the boondoggle that is the funding of billion-dollar stadiums, and reported on the connection between domestic violence and sports, including this season’s harrowing interview with Christy Mack.
Unfortunately, Gumbel’s unsure how much longer he’ll go on.
"It's funny,” Gumbel told Newsday during a November dinner celebrating the show. “The last time we were in the studio I think we were on show No. 223 and one of the camera guys said, ‘What do you think, Bryant? 250?’ And I said, you know, 250 is reasonable. I have two years left on my contract.”
In the interim, it doesn’t seem as if he’ll be going the least bit gentle into that good night. In advance of the series’ 20th anniversary roundtable episode, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m., The Daily Beast sat down with Gumbel for a wide-ranging conversation about the NFL, the NCAA, Donald Trump, Kanye’s future presidential campaign, the Missouri protests, and the stories he’s still dying to tell.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Who are the players, the athletes you like watching as a fan?
I like watching a lot of guys. Even though I can't stand the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watching the second baseman [Kolten] Wong. I love watching him. I think the guy does so many things so well that I like watching him. I like watching almost anybody that's really trying. I really do.
But I'm still a sap for the guy, who comes back after two years away and throws a touchdown pass or hits a home run. I still hope Kobe will find his shooting touch.
For all of its flaws—and there are a zillion of them—as an entertainment product on the television landscape, sports is still pretty good. I think the NFL probably is not a very good product now. But college football’s a pretty good product. I feel guilty watching it.
Speaking of which, is the NFL going to end up a niche sport like boxing? Is it going to go away in 20, 30 years?
Malcolm Gladwell has written that within 25 years, it will be socially unacceptable to be a football player. I think that's fast-forwarding the process. But I don’t dispute the idea that that’s what it’s going to come to. That’s what it is to a certain extent already. It’s a game played by the poor for the benefit of the rich.
None of these prep schools have football teams. You look at where football flourishes. It flourishes in the poorest states. It flourishes in Mississippi, in Alabama, in West Virginia, Texas.
It’s because it’s an opportunity for people who don’t have education, or job opportunities, to make something of themselves, to get out. To a certain extent, it’s already close to being a game played by the poor for the benefit of the rich. They’re not giving away tickets to Giants Stadium. You sit up in a luxury box; the guys down there on the field don’t come from your background. I don’t know. Will we get there? I think we’ll get there. At what point, I don’t know.
As a fan, when does it hit a saturation point where you say, “You know what? I can’t participate in this any more?”
It occurs to me every year, “This is the year I’ll really just stop.” I’m weak. I haven’t. But also what happens, and you’ll see this, as you age, you care less and less about what a bunch of 20-year-olds are doing. You really do. You just don’t care. You know, when I was a kid, I used to live and die with what the Cubs did. Now? Did I like to see them win? OK. Do I stay up at night if they don’t? No. Do I really care that much? No.
People are always surprised when I say I’ve never in my life, nor ever would I, tape a game. They say, “Why wouldn’t you?” I say, because I just don’t care that much. I really don’t. If I’m there to watch it, OK. But if I’m not, that’s OK too.
Mike Ditka has previously been highly critical of the NFL players that are suing the NFL for illegally supplying them with painkillers and other narcotics. Yet when you interviewed him, Jim McMahon, and Richard Dent, members of the 1985 Bears team that are really struggling, he did a complete about-face, saying he wouldn’t let his own son play football because “the risk is worse than the reward.” What changed?
To a certain extent—I mean this in the nicest way. I really do—I think the character of Mike Ditka is a big enterprise. It's been very successful for him, the whole “Iron Mike” thing. I think when he stops being that he can be and has shown himself to be a very sensitive, introspective guy. We didn’t use it, but he cried on camera during that interview. When he talked about going to see Mike Pyle, who was the center on the ’63 championship team in the hospital, he teared up.
He’s seen up close what it does to these people. I think he’s never really had any affection for owners. I think he’s always thought these guys would do anything. They’d sell body parts if it would sell some tickets. They really just don’t care. They truly don’t care. That’s why, I’m sorry, the NFL and its so-called concerns about player safety?
No. Its concern is the public image of player safety. There’s a difference.
That question of perception versus reality is something you brought up in regards to David Stern and the NBA.
I got in trouble a couple of years ago when I said that Stern had always had a plantation mentality where the NBA was concerned. But because America doesn’t do nuance, nobody took the time to really understand why I said it that way.
Because—and I think David Stern will agree with this—his problem coming in was that he had a game that was basically played by black athletes and his fans were white people who were scared of black guys, scared of black guys out of control.
What David’s actions were, were tantamount to saying, “I’ll protect you from these guys. I’ll make it so they can’t argue anymore. They have to dress a certain way when they arrive. They can’t do this. They can’t do that.” I didn’t necessarily say it was an awful thing. I just said he had a plantation mentality, which was part of his business plan.
I thought there was almost sort of something disingenuous about it. Where he used Allen Iverson to grab the hip-hop community, bring attention to the NBA and raise the NBA’s profile.
It seems like we’ve reached a point in history where athletes are more willing to be outspoken about their political and social beliefs.
Some. Some are. But I’m guessing it’s still 1 percent. I’d prefer we focus more on what the owners are doing with their money. [Jets owner] Woody Johnson was heading up the Romney campaign from New York. Let’s look at the politics of these guys.
What is the biggest change in the last 20 years about how you’ve covered sports at Real Sports? Has it changed for better or for worse?
I think it’s worse. To a certain extent our success has made it harder for us because the NFL, the NBA, MLB, they just want to run away. They’ve got so many other vehicles to get done what they want done. They’d rather just not play ball with someone who’s not going to give them the same soft landing that they can get in any number of outlets. That’s the reality of it. That’s the plain and simple truth of it.
If you’re Kevin Durant and you have the opportunity to do an “n-depth interview,” do you want to sit with somebody from NBA Network? Do you want to sit with somebody who’s a local writer, and the pressure attendant to that, or do you want to sit opposite us? I think you know the answer to that.
In a previous interview you said that it’s impossible to both promote and broadcast an industry that that you’re ostensibly supposed to cover as a journalist. Is that still true?
Absolutely true. At this point ESPN is so conflicted, it makes no sense to even discuss them, you know? Even 60 Minutes did something three weeks ago on the NFL and player safety. It was like a big wet kiss, to allow Roger Goodell to sit there and say “We care about player safety.” Does it occur to you at some point to say, “Excuse me? If you cared so much, why as recently as two years ago, were you saying there was no link? As recently as two years ago, were you fighting in court spending zillions of dollars to make sure these guys don’t get anything?”
I have all the respect in the world for 60 Minutes and for Steve Kroft. But when you sit there and watch something like that, you’re inclined to say, boy oh boy, it’s nothing more than a marketing plan.
You previously said a segment called “Eat What You Kill” isn’t a subject you wouldn't or couldn't have covered five or seven years ago. Why is that?
Because I’m so anti-gun. My feelings about the NRA are a matter of record. But Tim Walker made the case that his is not just a hunting story. It’s a movement among some people that say if you’re going to eat meat, let's at least come to honest terms with it. You can’t say, “I’m really opposed to hunting, but I’ll go buy myself a steak.”
Let’s get straight here: You’re only opposed to doing it yourself.
So you’re not a potential Donald Trump voter?
I mean, you can take a look at what this shithead is selling out here and leading the polls. It’s frightening. The repercussions of this presidential season, they’re going to resonate going forward.
Every time you’re going to get a wacko. Whether it’s a Carson or a Trump, or somebody who’s just not part of the process jumping in and being as outrageous as possible and seeing what kind of numbers they can generate, maybe just using it as his business vehicle or a social vehicle. Will it be Kanye West in 2020? I don’t know.
What are the stories that you haven’t yet covered at Real Sports that you still want to do?
I tend to look at things at my age from a different perspective. I’d like to explore how it is that a fan gets hooked, and why it is that as we age, we care less. I’d like to look at how climate change has changed sports. Because we have to assume it’s impacting everything in every stage of life, that sports are not immune to it.
I still think the greatest injustice in all of sports is non-payment of athletes at the collegiate level. You look at what is programmed every night in this country, and the people who are making tons of money off of it. They’re not paying for the labor. That doesn’t upset anybody? We’re going to have a bowl season, and there’s what, 38 frickin’ bowl games?
Here’s how much of a radical I am: If we had a situation where the athletes in the non-revenue producing sports—tennis, volleyball, track and field, rowing, baseball—if those athletes were predominantly black, and the athletes in the revenue-producing sports, basketball and football, were predominantly white, this issue would have gone away long ago.
There’s no way people would have stood for it. It would not be an issue. But the reality is nobody but nobody in this country cares about young black men. They don’t. They don’t give a shit. They just don’t care.
Did the strike by the Missouri football team give you some hope that the players could use their power to effect change?
I think it’s a lot to ask of a young man, who has a two-year window of opportunity, to give up his two years for the greater good. They’re going to say, “What, are you fucking nuts? You’re nuts? I’m going to give up my window, so that everybody else can get theirs?”
But it’d be really hard to happen in football because one guy can’t make that big a difference. Look, if Leonard Fournette says he’s not going to play, who really cares? Even Derrick Henry, before the bowl game, he says “I'm not going to play,” nobody in Alabama’s going to notice. They’ll say, “Fuck, who cares?”
When it happens it will be basketball, and it will be before a championship game, where the reality is, if you’re one of the star players of that game, your future is now assured. You’re the reason people are tuning in. You don’t need a whole football team to walk. You just need the two stars of the game that can walk.