This week’s announcement that HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will end following its current 29th season was mourned by many. Since 1994, Real Sports had not only provided new and notable interviews on many of the biggest stories in sports. It’s also found a wide range of compelling stories further outside of the mainstream.
Real Sports has aired 317 episodes to date, with four remaining over the final four months of 2023. And it’s produced a huge amount of remarkable segments along the way, which led to the tributes to it this week. Here are 15 segments that stood out, with clips or full segments for 13 of those 15.
“Psychedelics in Sports,” November 2020: This segment had David Scott talk with several prominent athletes, including former NHLer Daniel Carcillo, former NFLer Kerry Rhodes, and former MMA fighters Ian McCall and Dean Lister, on their usage of psychedelic mushrooms as a treatment for long-term effects of head injuries. It even showed Lister’s first encounter with these kinds of hallucinogens. This topic’s received a lot more attention recently, and Real Sports explored it well, and did so relatively early.
“Risky Business,” April 2019: This segment saw Jon Frankel dive into the life of cameramen shooting extreme sports and the challenges and hazards they face. It was a fascinating look at just what goes into getting some of those shots, and how it’s not just the extreme athletes who are at risk.
“The NHL’s Denial of CTE,” February 2018: Some of the most notable recent discussions of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy have been about hockey, and specifically the NHL. Unlike the NFL, the league still refuses to admit a link between hockey and CTE despite incredible numbers of former players being diagnosed with that disease. There has been a lot of strong reporting on hockey and CTE from people like Rick Westhead and John Branch over the years, but Real Sports added to the conversation significantly with this segment, with David Scott speaking with Eric Lindros, Ken Dryden, Paul Montador (father of former player Steve Montador) and more and relaying their criticisms of the NHL in strong terms.
“Kirstie Ennis,” October 2022: This segment had Jon Frankel talking with Kristie Ennis, who was a 21-year-old Marine sergeant in 2010 when she was in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, which led to the amputation of her left leg. Since then, Ennis’ climbing journey has inspired many. When Real Sports spoke to her, she had scaled six of the Seven Summits, and was preparing for another attempt at Everest (where she came close in 2019). (Ennis eventually came even closer this time, getting 200 meters from the summit before conditions caused her to turn around.) Frankel’s discussion with Ennis here was notable, getting at what motivated her to climb.
“Desert Racers,” October 2004: A 2004 Bernard Goldberg-helmed segment on small children forced into camel racing in the United Arab Emirates and the conditions they endured was the culmination of a three-month undercover investigation, including secretly-taken footage at the tracks. Real Sports‘ work here was widely cited as leading to government restrictions the next year, and, as shown in the 2018 update below, the eventual end of using children as jockeys there.
“Hidden Figures,” October 2020: Another Gumbel-held segment that may have helped produce significant change was this one on the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, the efforts to compile thorough statistics for those leagues, and the push to have them recognized as major leagues. This was a great story, with Gumbel going in-depth with Seamheads’ Larry Lester on just how he finds statistics and also interviewing everyone from C.C. Sabathia to Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick to historian Gary Gillette and author Todd Peterson. Two months after this, MLB finally agreed to recognize the Negro Leagues as major leagues.
“The Survivor,” August 2009: A February 2009 Florida boating accident claimed the lives of three friends, including NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith as well as Will Bleakley. Nick Schuyler, Bleakley’s best friend and someone who played football with him at South Florida, was the only survivor, and was rescued by the Coast Guard two days after the incident; he later co-authored a book on it with Jere Longman. Real Sports‘ Bernard Goldberg conducted a powerful interview with Schuyler not long after the incident, then caught up with him again five years later (the clip below). (As an aside, going back to previous stories for notable updates was something Real Sports often did very well over the years, and shows the power of a long-running series like this.)
“Unnatural Selection,” April 2014: This Soledad O’Brien-helmed segment, on the ethics of dog breeding, showed off both Real Sports‘ ability to find remarkable stories and their persistence in getting the story despite pushback. In this case, there was remarkable pushback from the American Kennel Club, including representatives who kept saying “happy, healthy dogs” over and over:
“Albert Belle,” September 1996: This segment showed off Real Sports‘ powers of access quite early in the series’ run, and it did so in an unusual way. Belle was highly controversial at this point, especially for a May fight with Fernando Viña that saw him suspended for three games. And he was also notable for his regular refusal to talk to media, including a profane outburst at reporters in the dugout during the 1995 World Series. But Real Sports got Belle to talk, and did so by bringing in another notable figure to helm the segment: Spike Lee. Some thought the result was too favorable to Belle, but it was definitely significant to get Belle on the record (including about the Viña incident), and this remains one of the more notable interviews with Belle.
“Juan Antonio Samaranch,” July 1996: Speaking of getting figures on the record, Real Sports did so in maybe even a more notable way a few months before the Belle segment. There, they ran a segment where Frank Deford interviewed under-fire International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Deford told Richard Sandomir of The New York Times the segment was initially conceived as a debate between Samaranch’s biographer David Miller and Olympics-critical investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, but then turned into Samaranch agreeing to talk.
Deford said he had no idea why Samaranch agreed to talk to him beyond “Maybe he thought we were part of the same happy family” (HBO was then owned by Time Warner, which also owned Sports Illustrated, which then was a $40 million sponsor of the Olympics and which produced an uncritical special for Olympics broadcaster NBC around the same time, as Sandomir also discusses there). But it turned into an incredible interview, with Samaranch calling the Olympics “more important than the Catholic religion,” defending awards to dictators like Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu because “We are judging what they are doing in sports,” and dropping a number of other remarkable lines. (Like some sports figures recently, Samaranch also tried to deny the Catholic claim in particular, only to be foiled by the tape.)
“The Strongman: Ramzan Kadyrov,” July 2016. Speaking of controversial international figures who probably should not have talked to Real Sports, Chechen leader (then and now) Ramzan Kadyrov is high on that list. This David Scott-helmed segment was quite a challenge to put together, including a long wait in a motel near the border and interviews with people tortured by the Kadyrov regime. But Scott eventually landed a sit-down interview with Kadyrov (who was sports-notable for his promotion of MMA). And that led to remarkable things, like the clip below where interviews with two people tortured by the regime on suspicion of being gay are then contrasted with Kadyrov saying “We don’t have such people here.”
“The Guru,” October 2016: Yoga is not high on the list of topics you’d expect on most sports shows, but this Andrea Kremer-helmed segment was well worth it. Kremer dug deep into sexual misconduct allegations against guru Bikham Choudhury and held an impressive interview with him. Choudhury was never criminally charged, but faced seven lawsuits alleging everything from sexual assault to hostile work environments, and a January 2016 ruling led to an award of $7.4 million to one person who sued him. Choudhury didn’t pay there, and left the U.S. soon after this Real Sports interview, but remains involved in international yoga.
“The Price of Glory in Qatar,” July 2014: One of the more notable abdications of responsibility in a while came from Fox’s David Neal last year, who told Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar “We believe that viewers come to Fox Sports during the World Cup to see the greatest sports event in the world. They don’t come to us expecting us to be [HBO’s] Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, or [ESPN’s] E: 60.” Well, both Real Sports and E:60 did indeed provide extensive coverage of the forced labor, “modern-day slavery,” deaths, and inhumane conditions around that World Cup. Real Sports first looked at this in a 2014 David Scott-helmed segment, then had Scott update it in November 2022, right around the start of that World Cup:
“Racial Injustice and COVID-19 in America,” June 2020: Filmed largely remotely during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and around leagues’ attempts to return to play, as well as growing racial protests following the police killing of George Floyd, this 32-minute segment was described as “one of the most ambitious shows in franchise history” by HBO, and it lived up to that. It saw Gumbel interview 35 people, including Doc Rivers, Billie Jean King, Hank Aaron, P.K. Subban, Steve Kerr, Mark Cuban, Michigan sheriff Chris Swanson, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, Ohio State AD Gene Smith and many more, and it smartly synthesized the challenges sports were facing in both reckoning with COVID and reckoning with racial injustice.
“Montana Skate Parks,” November 2021: This Mary Carillo-helmed segment went far off the beaten path, connecting with long-time Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament. Specifically, it spotlighted Ament’s building of 25 free-to-use skate parks (at that point) across his home state of Montana, and how he specifically put several of them in remote locations and on Native American reservations with high suicide rates. It was far from a standard sports story, but it illustrated Real Sports‘s ability to find unique and important stories with sports connections and bring them to a wider audience.
Real Sports’ next episode will air on HBO on Sept. 26, and will also be available on Max. Episodes from the past two seasons can currently be viewed on Max.