Monday, February 13, 2006

Mr. Gumbel's Racism

Did you catch the latest edition of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO? Let me begin with my usual caveats about HBO and Mr. Gumbel. Readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of the network; much of its "original" programming is pretentious and over-hyed; critics like it only because HBO is eager to broadcast simulated homosexual sex (Six Feet Under), depict Mafioso thugs as heroes (The Sopranos), or televise big-budget, made-for-cable epics (Angels in America) that are little more than shameless tirades against the conservatives and the GOP.

As for Mr. Gumbel, his "smarter-than-you" attitude and occasional tendency towards race-baiting make him one of the more unwatchable personalities on the tube. Yet, I make it a point to watch Real Sports because it's one of the few attempts at serious ports journalism on TV. I also watch because HBO also had the good sense to hire some gifted reporters (most notably Bernard Goldberg and Frank DeFord) to cover the stories featured on each edition. And better yet, viewers have to endure only a bit of Gumbel in each edition. He introduces each segment, chats with the reporters after their stories have aired and offers a brief commentary at the end.

In his most recent comments, Gumbel takes a shot at the Winter Olympics--and manages to work in a few political and racial digs as well.

"And finally tonight the Winter Games. Count me among those that don't like 'em and won't watch 'em. In fact, I figure when Thomas Paine said, "These are the times that try men's souls", he must have been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they are so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too.

Like try not to be incredulous when someone tries to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of Blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a psuedo-athlete waits in what's called a "kiss and cry area” while some panel of subjective judges decides who won.

And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sports writers pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon, and all those other events they don't understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it, these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February. So, if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, and we can move on to March Madness, for God's sake, let the Games begin."

Apparently, Mr. Gumbel is excised because there are few black athletes in the winter games. Judging from his comments, the Winter Olympics are apparently unwatchable, in part because the athletes are overwhelmingly white. Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned, but I never believed that admiration for an athlete should be based on his or her skin color. Ask someone why they idolized Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Walter Peyton or Michael Jordan, and you'll hear something about a particular play, bout, shot or game-winning performance. Skin color, in that context, becomes irrelevant, except to the Bryant Gumbels of the world.

Perhaps Mr. Gumbel would be happy if there were some sort of affirmative action plan for the Winter Olympics, allowing blacks to be fully represented in sports like downhill skilling, the luge, curling, figure skating and hockey. If that's the solution, then maybe he'd support similar affirmative action plans for boxing, the NBA, and track-and-field, where the number of black participants far exceeds the number of whites. Funny, but I don't recall Bryant Gumbel bemoaning the lack of white participation in pro basketball, boxing, or the professional track circuit.

By raising the issue of race, Gumbel misses the messsage of the Olympics, the belief that athletic competition reflects the best of mankind, and can serve as some sort of bridge between nations and groups that often disagree. Admittedly, that message is sometimes lost amid the hype and commercialism that accompany the modern games, but you can still find it, if you bother to look. I found it the other day, watching an Estonian woman overtake the race favorite in the final 300 meters, and win a gold medal in cross-country skiing.

Of course, such displays of grace, grit and determination are lost on the Bryant Gumbels of the world, who (ironically) style themselves as sophisticated observers of the sporting scene. But in reality, they're nothing more than liberal race baiters, pre-occupied with imaginary quotas and concerns about racial representation. I'm not much of a hockey fan, and I know nothing about the skeleton or biathalon, but thanks to Bryant Gumbel, I will make it a point to watch more of the Winter Olympics on NBC.

5 comments:

Elam Bend said...

I knew someone who worked on the program. They said that Gumbel's interaction with it was very minimal. Essentially, he showed up read through the agenda and then roll tape. Then he'd lob off a few thoughts after the show, and that's about it; pretty much as it appears.
They said that half the time he really didn't even have much imput on which stories were done unless some particular story got his gumption up.

Spook86 said...

I have a friend who works in the CBS Public Relations department, and she told me a similar story about his stint on "The Early Show." Gumbel insisted that his office be located in another building, away from the rest of the staff, and he communicated with his colleagues almost exclusively by e-mail.

He also made an enemy out of Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. In the early 70s, Buch was paired with Gumbel on an NBC program called "Grandstand." Buck quit after less than a year, in part because of his battles with Gumbel. Even in those days, Gumbel had a colossal ego, and wasn't shy about throwing his weight around--or playing the race card.

Elam Bend said...

Wow. I have some ties to St. Louis and from I've been told it says a lot to get on Jack Buck's bad side.

(His family restaurant in Clayton [part of st. louis] is great).

ER said...

Your post is right on target. Gumble wearies me. No actually he sickens me with most of his opinions. He is entitled to them, but I am turning him off from now on. There are far more knowledgable commentators without such a huge chip on their shoulders I enjoy. And by the way, Bryant, I don't recall reading about Basketball in the ancient Greek games. [sarcasm on]Why don't we throw that racially stilted sport out too? [/sarcasm off]

gocanada said...

Maybe this will help you see the even deeper significance of the Winter Olympics to non-Americans.
1. Canada: The Winter Olympics is the one time when Canada can stand up and cheer for their “ghetto sport”. In the middle of winter on the Prairies we don’t go down to the gym (or out to the hardcourts as in the South), but out to the frozen-over basketball court and play hockey. Or on the family farm we join with the other farming kids on the frozen pond out on the back quarter and dream of one day making the NHL...or playing for our country in the greatest hockey tournament on earth. For Canadians the Olympic hockey tournament was a joke until we could ice our NHL best and now we proudly cheer on our national sport. My son’s living here in New York proudly wear their Canada Hockey shirts to school, even if the clued out classmates decked out in Knicks or Giant’s gear take no notice. Of course, everyone in the world is not into college basketball...and we’re not rich elites either. Most of the best Canadian hockey players learned on Dad’s frozen yard out back including the Great One. Comon’ let us cheer for those average Joe guys who made it big and make us feel better about ourselves and can for once jump out of the American flag waving sports shadow.
2. Estonia: You referenced the gold medal. My father is an Estonian refugee from the Soviet era wherein all his brothers were killed. As you probably knew, under the years of Soviet occupation any ethnic Estonian was forced to compete for the Soviet Russian team. The Estonian "underdog" winning over the favorite is a metaphor for the tiny country winning over their 61 year oppression. The ecstasy and joy of being able to wave the black, light blue, and white without fear of getting shot or thrown in prison is a glorious moment in the new history of this underdog nation. If anyone should be able to root for Estonia, it should be a formerly oppressed African American.