Bryant Gumbel is exhausted.
He is taking time out from two days of video chats with a range of athletes, coaches, managers and observers (“I spoke with 18 peopole yesterday, and I’m speaking with 21 today,” he notes) that will help fill a decidedly non-traditional hour of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” the newsmagazine he has anchored on HBO since 1995. On June 23, the program will do away with its typical format and devote the entire program to examining how sports has been affected by both the coronavirus pandemic and the racial injustice that has spurred protests nationwide.
“I categorize it as trying to eat Jell-O with a knife and fork,” he says of his current pursuit, which is slated to include interviews with people ranging from Billie Jean King, Bubba Wallace and Bob Costas to Hank Aaron, Steve Kerr and Killer Mike. “What we are trying to make sense of is the fact that sports, like everything else on the planet, is in a unique moment. It is being buffeted by two plagues, the plague of COVID and the plague of racism, and it is struggling to deal with both, and at a time when it is vulnerable, because it’s trying to re-open.”
The task is arduous. “Real Sports” segments are often wrapped well in advance of an episode’s air date, but Gumbel knows that this story is changing radically every day, as different leagues and player associations grapple with shifts in policy amid a charged cultural moment. “We can’t do it with the normal lead time we would be comfortable with,” he says, because “the world is upside down. What you say today may be stupid tomorrow morning. The idea of trying to get things done far in advance just doesn’t work for right now.”
Many outlets are trying to get a handle on the U.S. sports industry. Billions of dollars in advertising, merchandise and distribution are at stake after the pandemic forced nearly all the nation’s major sports leagues to suspend play or delay season openings. Nascar racing and golf have returned to play, but all eyes are on the NHL, NBA and NFL, which have articulated plans for finishing off a season or starting a full one. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, seems to be at a stalemate with players over whether there will even be an Opening Day. ESPN recently broadcast a two-hour “Sports Center” special featuring interviews between Mike Greenberg and the heads of six different sports leagues.
“Real Sports,” however, looks to get beyond bargaining-table talk, as it has since its debut on HBO in 1995, an era when the premium-cable outlet was better known for series like “The Larry Sanders Show: and “Dream On.” “I’ve always told people that ‘Real Sports’ is about sports like ‘Rocky’ is about boxing,” says Gumbel. “We use sports to look at society and problems and issues. So what’s happening right now is kind of in our wheelhouse.”
The new episode will rebroadcast a segment about Robbie Tolan, an aspiring professional athlete, and the son of former baseball player Bobby Tolan, who was shot by a police officer in front of his own home in Bellaire, Texas. The report “seems so prescient now,” says Gumbel and had some far-reaching effects on immunity for police officers.
He acknowledges the current story is so big and evolving so quickly that “Real Sports” may not get at every facet of it. But it’s worth trying. “There is so much and so many changes afoot and so many perspectives that I’m afraid doing justice to it in any amount of time is not just absurd, it’s unfair. But it’s the reality,” he says. “We are trying to give people a sense of what’s going on and how people from all walks and good faiths are trying to make sense of it.”