Bryant Gumbel puts a bow on his 18th season hosting HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” on Tuesday night, with the show’s annual round-table review.
Driven by Gumbel’s eye for human-interest stories that examine the role of games and sports in society, “Real Sports” has won 23 Sports Emmy Awards, 15 of them for “Outstanding Sports Journalism.”
One of this year’s nominees could be Gumbel catching up with the unwanted son of former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth, a profile that revealed both the worst in human behavior (Carruth hired a hit man to shoot his pregnant girlfriend) and the redemptive triumph of the boy himself, his caring grandmother and the hit man’s haunting regret.
Gumbel, a former “Today” host who started his broadcasting career at KNBC in 1972, also delivers biting, unapologetic commentaries at the close of “Real Sports” broadcasts.
Did you believe at the start that “Real Sports” would last this long? What sustained you and it?
“I didn’t think about how long it’d last. I was hosting ‘Today’ at the time and had a conversation with my boss about it being on once or twice a year. It almost stopped when I went to CBS. What sustained it is the quality of the broadcast, which rewards viewers with quality stories. We have a very good group in front of the camera, a veteran, seasoned group of reporters, and a young, aggressive group of people behind the scenes.”
The richness you pulled from the Rae Carruth son story — the hit man confiding he was motivated to commit murder by the greed of collecting $50,000, the grandmother’s love — what made you say, “I’ll take this one” in the first place?
“It’s a story that resonates with a lot of people. Being left with a kid, the challenge of caring for a disabled youth. We did not want to demonize Rae Carruth or recount the facts of the shooting, but we sought to tell the inspiring story of the grandmother and the child versus this man who’s in prison. It was first brought to me by a producer, and I said, ‘I have no desire to recount the lurid past,’ but as we sat down we saw the opportunity to tell this story about family love, shared responsibility, giving and hope.”
That type of piece is your staple because sports is indelibly linked to the behavior of society at large, isn’t it?
“People say we do a sports show in the same vein ‘Rocky’ is a sports movie. We’re about hope, challenge, despair, self-belief, self-esteem. It’s a vehicle to explore themes beyond ‘Should the Jets start Sanchez or Tebow?’ Sports is our steppingstone to socially relevant issues.”
So what’d you think of NBC’s Bob Costas using halftime of the Sunday night NFL game two weeks ago to speak out on gun control in light of Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide? Fair game?
“I’m not qualified to judge others’ work. It’s always difficult in a limited time frame to take on issues that hotly contested. All you can do is say what you mean and hope to do it effectively. We’ve done a story on the proliferation of guns in the athletic community. It’s such a multilayered problem and it’s just not going to go away. You discuss it, and feel a bit like you’re spooning water out of the ocean.”
Your own commentaries have also been a magnet for debate, calling NBA Commissioner David Stern a plantation owner, identifying suspected users of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, criticizing the Winter Olympic Games for an absence of black athletes. How do you establish the subject?
“I take it seriously and spend a lot of time with it. We’re trying to make a point. Brevity is difficult. To do it in a minute, or 1:15, the economy of words is important and I go through a lot of angst about every word. Commentaries are intended to make people think. After all of them, I can’t think of any I’d take back. I firmly believe what I say. Part of the reality of it is that it’s a monthly program, so you can’t do something that won’t be relevant in two weeks. You do something to stand the test of time and keep it current.”
Where did your edge, your push for the hard truth emerge? Has it always been there since KNBC, or did it evolve through reporting?
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and that’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that. When I first joined KNBC, they started a two-hour newscast. Our news directors decided it wouldn’t make sense to say the Dodgers and Angels won or lost both times. So they asked me, ‘What do you think you can do that’s different?’ So we talked issues, did sports book reviews. Sports was a jumping-off point. So this is something I’ve been accustomed to doing, although it seems funny now. I was ridiculously young. Great group we had there … Jess Marlow, Tom Snyder and Tom Brokaw at 11 p.m.”
What more do you want to do in the business?
“I just try to enjoy every day, do good work that people are interested in. I don’t dumb it down. I take pride that whatever people think of me, they know I care about what I do. I’m serious-minded. As far as my career, I’ve been accused of having tunnel vision. I don’t really use a rear-view mirror, I’m so preoccupied with what I’m doing. It’s like when I was at NBC, I would always say no when they asked me to do ‘Nightly News.’ I decided I didn’t want the viewer to think I wanted to be anything other than who I was. I still feel that way.”