Fifteen years ago, HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” a monthly magazine show that has now received 33 Emmy Awards since its debut in 1995, ran a story about child camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. “Real Sports” discovered some of these boys were as young as 3 years old and were being held as slaves, starved to keep their weight down, sexually abused and given anti-growth hormones.
Last year, “Real Sports” revisited the story and reported that the children of the UAE’s crown prince had seen the segment and, horrified, asked their father, “Is this our country?” The upshot was that the jockeys, many of whom had been kidnapped or sold by their parents from countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh, were returned to their homelands. Boy jockeys were eventually banned throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and replaced — by robots. The original report, which won an Emmy, was just one example of the kinds of stories “Real Sports” does not shy away from covering.
“Our objectives when we started were pretty simple and clear,” says Gumbel, the show’s host, in an email interview with The Envelope. “Try to do good storytelling through the prism of sports. Whether it’s an investigative story, an issues oriented piece, or a profile, we try to take a serious and intelligent look at sports. As a result, our efforts are less about sports than they are about the complexities of the world in which we live.”
“Real Sports” was nominated for five Sports Emmys this year, winning for its feature on the exploitation of Sherpa guides in the Himalayas at a May ceremony in New York. The series, a canny mix of hardcore reporting, human interest stories, and the occasional ‘Is that really a sport?’ piece (crossword puzzle contests, wine tasting competitions), also received nominations for features about Russia’s tainted sports program, the NFL’s concussion settlement and Tommy Morrissey, a 7-year-old, one-armed golfer. Past winners include stories about racism in soccer, corruption in the International Olympic Committee and baseball in the Dominican Republic.
“The story pitches come from everywhere — the correspondents, producers, associate producers,” says Mary Carillo, one of the program’s reporters, who has been with “Real Sports” since 1997. “What makes the pieces in ‘Real Sports’ so strong is there are strong central characters.”
“We try to have a blend, a mix,” says Joe Perskie, the show’s executive producer. “We try to work stories where the stakes are high, some where there is an emotional connection, and some where there’s a trend going on, like a recent story we did on the changing demographics in youth football. We consider close to 1,000 story ideas a year, and we do 11 episodes with about three stories a month, so that’s only 33 per year.”
Despite its undoubted success, the people at “Real Sports” also recognize that their reputation for hard-nosed, take no prisoners reporting can run into roadblocks. Carillo mentions, for example, a story she wanted to do about an Indian woman who was part of the No. 1 doubles tennis team in the world. She had a Bollywood agent and was married to a Pakistani soccer star, “but then her agent said she didn’t want to talk about her marriage, and our access was going to be so limited, we walked away from it.”
“We’d love to cover even more of the sports world’s many injustices than we routinely do, but it’s often next to impossible,” Gumbel says. “The sad truth is that many of the sports world’s most powerful people and entities consistently get away with things because they’re so rarely held accountable. We’d like to take such people to task, but to a certain extent we’re sometimes victims of our own success. People in authority who are looking for a soft interview will avoid us at all costs.”
Nearly a quarter-century after it debuted, “Real Sports” remains the ne plus ultra of sports journalism. But that doesn’t mean sports journalism in general hasn’t changed over the years, in both positive and negative ways. Carillo says that when she first got into the business, “the women were supposed to do the light-hearted stuff, and the men were strictly x’s and o’s. Then came longer-form stories, which the men wanted to do, and at the same time the women were trying to prove they knew sports, and that has been a major shift.”
Yet, says Gumbel, “there’s as much, if not more, reporting on and about sports than there has ever been, but much, if not most of it, is embarrassingly sycophantic. The broadcast entities in business with various leagues put a premium on promoting those leagues and hyping the product in a way that is mutually beneficial to their bottom lines.”
Which means, ultimately, that “Real Sports” continues to go its own way, with the knowledge that, as the old cliché goes, “nothing succeeds like success.”
“I think there’s a lot more opinion out there now [in sports TV],” says Perskie. “Part of it is the 24-hour cable world, part of it is social media, part is the media in general. To me, being a monthly show, to be relevant, that makes us more incumbent to be who we are. The heated opinion thing, that’s not us.”