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Bryant Gumbel lambasts lack of 'real journalism' in most sports coverage

Bryant Gumbel attends HBO's Real Sports With Bryant

Bryant Gumbel attends HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel 20th Anniversary at Aureole on November 11, 2015 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael Loccisano

"Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" was viewed when it premiered on HBO 20 years ago as a vital addition to the mostly barren landscape of sports journalism on television.

All these years later, with so many more outlets for such work available, is Gumbel pleased with how the genre has evolved?

Um, no.

"I wish I could say, boy, there's a lot of folks doing it now and we've really taken a serious look, but I'd be lying," Gumbel said Wednesday at a dinner in Manhattan to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary. (It premiered on April 2, 1995.)

"I still think so much of what passes for sports coverage is so sycophantic it's nauseating. But that's me. You tune into any Sunday and watch before the football games, and come on. I mean, really. Really."

What about shows such as ESPN's "Outside the Lines," which actually predates "Real Sports," and other efforts at sports documentaries and news coverage? Isn't there more such content available now than ever?

"It's true, you're right," he said, "but in the vast scheme of one hundred percent of sports coverage, how much of it is real journalism? An infinitesimal amount."

Gumbel said one challenge in this era compared with when the show began is the other means sports figures have to convey their messages publicly.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to play ball, because they have vehicles like the NBA Network or the NFL Network or the MLB Network or the NHL Network or The Players' Tribune," he said.

"They'd rather go through it unfettered, not face anything difficult and then basically say, well, I've addressed that, I'm not going to talk about it again, let's move on, it's on to Cincinnati, rather than actually trying to answer something. That's unfortunate. It really is. It's sad."

Gumbel, 67, has had a varied career, including 15 years as a co-host of NBC's "Today" show. But he said there has been nothing that has satisfied him quite like "Real Sports."

"I've never hid or tried to disguise the fact that this is the best show on which I've ever worked; I really mean that," he said. "I'm enormously proud of this broadcast. I really am. And not just because it's my baby. I just think we have in the main tried to do serious journalism, good storytelling, and do it well.

"And I think we try to treat the viewer with a degree of intelligence, and I'm very proud of that. I really am, because I think in this era we see too much dumbing down and we've managed to avoid that, and that makes me proud. Maybe it's just that I'm old."

Speaking of dumbing down, Bryant is not a fan of what he sees on the network morning shows of the 2010s, in particular the ratings leader, ABC's "Good Morning America."

"That's really almost laughable," he said. "It's not something I could sign on to, really."

The show leans heavily on trending social media topics.

"That's all it is: Let's sit around and let's laugh and let's joke," Gumbel said. "Let's talk about what was on the computer last night and what the latest makeover is. Look, God bless them, it's not for me. Not for me."

What about his old show, "Today"? Said Gumbel: "Matt [Lauer)]is still my best friend, so I'll take the Fifth."

Regarding morning shows in general, he said, "Look, I'm no different from everybody else. Anybody who does it or did it thinks theirs was better than the one that follows. So I'm no different than everybody else.

"They're doing what they think is in their best interests. Is it something that I'd like to be doing? No, it's not a show that I'd like to be doing."

Gumbel said he is unsure how long he wants to continue doing "Real Sports."

"It's funny, the last time we were in the studio I think we were on show No. 223 and one of the camera guys said, 'What do you think, Bryant? 250?' And I said, you know, 250 is reasonable. I have two years left on my contract.

"And they said, 'How about 300?' And I said, look, I really don't know. That's asking a lot. That's seven years away. I don't know."

Gumbel had a cancerous tumor near his lung removed in 2009.

"I've had it twice," he said. "I'm free and clear right now, but you never know. I try not to talk about it too much. It kind of annoys me with people who've had it and want to make sure it's the first and last thing [mentioned] in everything they do.

"But I'm in good health. I really am. I'm fortunate. I've had my share of health challenges, a lot of people have. I've come through mine on the other side and I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

"I'm upright. When you get screened they say you're free and clear, and I always tell people it means you're free and clear to that moment."

Gumbel was the NFL Network's play-by-play man for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, concluding with the Patriots-Giants regular-season finale in '07. His work in that role, which he never had filled before, received generally negative reviews.

"I was never cut out to be a rah-rah guy, plain and simple," he said. "Look, my brother [Greg] is very good at it. I'm happy for him. It's just not my thing, it really isn't.

"It didn't excite me and I can't fake the kind of enthusiasm that doing that seems to require. Not that the others are fake, but they have a lot more enthusiasm."

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