All in the Game
Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
—Heywood Hale Broun, in James A Michener’s Sports in America
Sports get short shrift when it comes to TV reporting. While print media regularly dig below the box scores, on television, most jock journalism remains at the tedious talking head or joking jester level. Combining sideshows and catchphrases, TV sports reporting only seems smart when it satirizes itself, as in the cases of Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann.
And yet, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is among the most highly regarded, and rewarded, news magazines in the history of television. When HBO premiered the show 10 years ago (the anniversary is this month), no one believed a sports show would fit into its mostly movie-oriented format. Thirteen Emmys (and five more nominations in 2005) later, no other program, save for ABC’s Wild World of Sports, has had such a significant impact on the culture and connection between fans and their favorite pastimes. It avoids the pandering and puffery to focus on a genuine exploration of sports as an assembly of industry structures, personal stories, and heroic achievements.
Real Sports is, hands down, the best hour of investigative journalism currently on the air. Because HBO has no direct connection to the outlandish amounts of money paid to leagues for broadcast rights and exclusive content, the series tackles subjects the networks avoid, stories that are “too controversial” (homosexuality in the locker room) or “confrontational” (racism in NASCAR). With only three stories per hour-long installment, along with closing commentary, Real Sports offers authenticity and insight, appealing to viewers with lively topics, then delivering detailed education.
The show understands there is a world beyond sports, keeping one eye always on the big picture. It doesn’t allow subjects as arcane as young children’s exploitation as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates or the uneasy, almost incestuous alliance between gambling and the NFL, NBA, and MLB to become mired in minutia. Most recent news implies that steroids only affect a small group of highly paid athletes. But Sports shows the terrifying trickle down, of how celebrity-fueled hero worship leads to middle school kids injecting themselves to guarantee an early seat on the draft day gravy train.
At the center, as both aficionado and voice of reason, sits Gumbel. He takes his new role very seriously. He is more intent on tackling subjects like the wrongful incarceration of high school football star Marcus Dixon (one of Real Sports’ most famous stories) than he ever did interviewing heads of state for Today or The Early Show. He offers a critical inquiry or a final consideration that cuts to the core of any controversy. And he presents real stories, not publicity pieces.
He’s aided in this effort by the correspondents, some of the best in the business—currently, Bernard Goldberg, Mary Carillo, Armen Keteyian, Frank DeFord, and James Brown. All approach their stories with ethical and emotional intensity, shaping a program that is not filled with stats and scandal, but backgrounds and reconsiderations. Several stories, like the recent 21 March piece on the plane crash that killed several members of the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team, are emotionally draining. Others, like the Miracle League’s baseball diamonds, designed especially for disabled kids, are inspiring.
More times than not, Real Sports confirms the shrinking schism between sports and the regular, everyday world. Where baseball was once “America’s pastime,” it now looks like a longtime corrupt folly. The 1998 battle between sluggers Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa is devolved into a witch hunt for those individuals who’ve used illegal means to increase their skill level. Real Sports tackled this subject… over five years ago. Always on the cutting edge, it still sets the bar for sincere discussion of athletics and all related issues.
Real Sports also understands that sports, like music and film, bear certain sentimental meanings for fans. And so, along with its investigations, the show grants access to superstars in smart, in-depth profiles. Amid the din of boasts and accusations, Real Sports plays it straight.