With 26 Emmys, a Peabody Award and a team of journalists unparalleled in its field, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is arguably the most important sports program on television. In an era where allegiances to leagues and access to stars are currency, Real Sports stands alone – mostly because its host has never been one to play nice.
Known for always asking the tough questions during his 15-year run as host of the Today show, Bryant Gumbel created Real Sports as a place to get his sports fix. But he had no interest in buddying up to celebrities; rather, he wanted a show that dug deeper than others would. As a result, Real Sports has been heralded for its investigative reporting on wide-ranging topics that – just in this past season alone – included match fixing in soccer, the marketing of gun sports to children and the link between concussions and domestic violence in the NFL.
With season 20 of Real Sports set to kick off tonight on HBO, Rolling Stone chatted with Gumbel, and as expected, he didn't hold back, sounding off on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the "abomination" of the college football playoffs and the "pigs" at the NRA.
When Real Sports premiered in 1995, Variety wrote a review that called it "a gloves-off, lid-blowing blasting of sports icons and institutions." Is that how you've always seen the show?
Rather than say "gloves-off," I would say "not gloves-on." And the difference is not just semantic. I think more often than not, in what passes for sports coverage, people are preoccupied with keeping the gloves on. Don't offend anybody. Make nice. So they are conscious of keeping the gloves on. We don't go into something saying gloves-off; we just say we're not going to put gloves on.
The review ends by calling you "self-satisfied." Throughout your career that's been the knock on you. But is that a bad thing?
[Laughs] How do I answer this? I'm a preparedness freak. Always have been. Someone will say to me, "You have no fear." Well, the lack of fear comes from the fact that I try to know enough that I will never be surprised when I ask somebody something. In terms of it being a bad thing, this takes us down a road that I'm not crazy about going down. I used to say when I hosted the Today program that if Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and I all asked the same difficult question in the same tone of voice with the same look on our faces, Koppel would be characterized as brilliant and prepared, Barbara would be characterized as bitchy and I would be characterized as arrogant.
So when you ask is it a negative thing, well, it shouldn't be, but it is often thrown at someone of color as if, "Who the hell do you think you are?" I think it's wonderful to be prepared and to be confident and to present yourself in that fashion without apology. But to a lot of people it's almost like I should be grateful for sitting where I am and I should make that known, and when I don't, some people see that as off-putting.
What has kept Real Sports interesting for you?
I think the sports world has changed a lot. The stories that come from the sports world used to be confined to the sports world. Now they become cultural touchstones. I dare say if Ray Rice would have hit his wife 20 years ago it would have been talked on SportsCenter and that's it. But now all of these things are talked about on The View, The Talk, Live! with Kelly and Michael and nightly news, everywhere.
Speaking of Ray Rice, what were your thoughts on the Mueller Report?
What a surprise. Let me get this straight: the guy hired by the league found that the league was not in error? What a shock. C'mon. Did anyone really expect anything different when that firm was hired, given their relationships? It's such garbage. I think this was the rubber stamp that people expected.
I'd imagine you'd love to do an interview with Roger Goodell about the NFL's recent issues.
Oh, God yeah! And Roger and I – I'd like to say, "are friends," but maybe "were" is the operative word now. I like Roger, but I don't think with things like this he wants any part of me. I think increasingly people who have image problems or complications that result from something they have done find a soft landing. [...] So Roger Goodell can sit down with the NFL Network, for example, and get asked what color his suit really is.
I grew up believing that the best way to put something behind you was to be seen confronting the issue and answering the questions honestly. Now guys simply get up in front of a microphone and go, "That's water under the bridge, we're going forward." But you never answered anything! Be you Michael Vick or Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson or whoever, you can't stand there and say, "We've done that, I have nothing more to say." Bullshit. Jimbo Fisher, for example, down in Florida State, has been able to walk through this entire season without confronting any of the issues. It's embarrassing. Bill Belichick wants to stand there and be an asshole and go, "We're on to Cincinnati. We're focusing on Cincinnati." You know what? Fuck you. I'm not going to ask you anything. We're not going to give you any space.
Real Sports correspondent Frank Deford said that the show hit its stride once the producers got away from the need to cover a sports celebrity every episode. Would you agree with that?
It was, for a while, a source of internal strife. And I would say strife with a small "s." My contention has been that the raves we have received, and I like to say earned, have been because we're doing things that other people aren't doing.
And I won't lie to you. We would love, love, to get certain big names, but we will not grant them preconditions that those big names might want. In other words – not that he has said this – but for example, if Tiger Woods would say, "Yeah, I want to do you but I don't want to talk about Thanksgiving three years ago," well, no. It's not us. We're not going to make that deal.
A story you personally took on last season, about the "Eat What You Kill" movement, would you have done that five, ten years ago?
There are a few things I hate more than the NRA. I mean truly. I think they're pigs. I think they don't care about human life. I think they are a curse upon the American landscape. So we got that on the record. That said, I'm willing to separate that this story had nothing to do with that. It's not a gun story. So I would like to think that I would have done it, but I don't know. Obviously, that was my first experience around killing and guns and hunting.
The show hasn't been shy in showing how college athletes are exploited. What do you think of the new college football playoff system?
I think it's an abomination. I think it's a joke because nobody gives a damn about the kids. I mean let's take a look: we have the two biggest cable ratings of the year and everybody's getting rich but the product, the hell with them. By the time this is over you know how many games Ohio State will have played this year? 15! 15 games. At what point will somebody step forward and say this is abusive? They run these kids into the ground.
In ten years do you think the college athlete will be paid?
Within ten years they will be compensated in some fashion other than a scholarship, but my guess is they will still be grossly under-compensated.
You made the announcement last season that you will no longer do commentaries to end the show. You're really going to stop doing them?
I'll be honest with you; I am willing to admit that I may have made a mistake. A lot of people whose opinions I respect have told me it wasn't a smart decision. So I don't know. I'm still working it through in my own head and part of the difficulty of working it through is to remove my ego from it. My ego of not only admitting that I'm wrong, but my ego of thinking that what I do is so important.
As news today is forgotten as quickly as it's consumed, why does the long-form format of Real Sports work?
Because in today's environment, it's unique. I like to say that we try to reward the viewer with the degree of intelligence and maturity that they're willing to invest. We're going to talk about something in-depth that is going to require some attention from you and we're not going to do any tricks artistically.
When you left the Today show, you said, "15 years is not a lifetime." What does 20 years of Real Sports mean to you?
It means a great deal to me. It means more to me than people can imagine. What people think about me personally I really don't care, but what they think about the program, I care a lot. I've always had a thing about nice round numbers. I will be 71 by the time this show hits 25 years. I don't know [if I'll stop then], I only know I still enjoy it and I don't think my involvement in it has become a burden to the staff or the viewer, which to me is very important. That's the way I feel about it.