HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel celebrated its 25th anniversary in April, but the show is still finding new ways to innovate and evolve even with COVID-19 filming restrictions. Their episode last month broke a lot of ground on teams’ and leagues’ response to the novel coronavirus, particularly with discussion of how many MLB and NHL teams refused to answer if they’d applied for emergency relief funds, and this month’s episode (premiering at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO) is even more notable. Here’s a trailer for the main 32-minute segment, “Racial Injustice and COVID-19 in America.”
HBO’s release describes this segment as “One of the most ambitious shows in franchise history,” and it lives up to that billing. It features Gumbel interviewing 35 people, including athletes, team and league executives, activists, authors, and public health figures. And he discusses both racial injustice protests and attempts to resume play amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with those figures. We’ve seen a screener of the segment, and it’s a remarkable collection of discussions on both of those subjects, and one that manages to tie them together well.
That trailer shows off some of that, including Los Angeles Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers’ remarks of “I don’t think America understands what we go through on a daily basis. We need to teach white America exactly what slavery was and what it did. We live in a country of slavery. And yet we don’t talk about it. It makes us uncomfortable,” Mark Cuban’s “A lot of people accuse me of virtue signalling; fuck that, excuse my French. This is the right thing to do at the right time, and it’s got to be done, or it won’t change,” and Stephen Jackson’s “I think the reason we are at this moment is because it’s been organic. It’s been real pain. It’s been real passion. It’s been real tears. It’s been real blood that was spilled to get us to this moment.” But there’s a lot more to the full segment, which is based off of 35 interviews Gumbel conducted (remotely) over the past two weeks. Here are some selected excerpts from it, starting with Rivers’ further comments on his father, who was a police officer.
“What I loved about my dad was that in the community, he was a baseball coach, a football coach, he was actually part of the community. When you were a little kid and you saw my dad, you ran towards my dad. Right now, when you see a cop, you run away from him. And to me, that’s a problem.”
There’s also a notable exchange between Gumbel and famed MLB player Hank Aaron. Gumbel asks “As a native of Alabama and as a Black man for 86 years, you are no stranger to racism. As you watched the protests unfold in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, do you feel you’ve seen this movie too many times before?” And Aaron responds “I’ve seen it many times, Bryant. I’ve seen it many times, and it’s been rehearsed many times. And it’s sad. You know, when I was raising my two boys, the most important thing that I always told them was ‘When you are stopped, you don’t argue, you don’t say anything to them. You just say ‘Yes, sir’ and keep going. Because you’ll live to see life another day.’ And that’s the way things are.”
Something that’s quite remarkable with this segment is the amount of perspectives it leverages. It would have been much simpler for Real Sports to just focus on a few athletes and maybe an executive or two and have them just provide some takes. But this brings in authors, activists, and even a couple of police figures. Chris Swanson, the sheriff of Michigan’s Genesee County, who famously joined protesters in late May, told Gumbel his profession has its own role to play in stopping cases like the killing of George Floyd, where an officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
“Change has to start with the police. How can anybody justify 8 minutes and 46 seconds in this field, and say that’s right? You can’t! I’m very aware that I am the problem. But I’m also very aware that I can help and change that narrative.”
And Art Acevedo, the chief of the Houston Police Department, told Gumbel that Floyd’s death is a call for change:
“There’s a great awakening that’s going on right now in our country. And I think that the eight minutes and 46 seconds of Mr. Floyd asking to be able to breathe and calling for his mama, I think it’s touched even the most hardened hearts in our country, across the board, across religions, across socioeconomics. So it’s changing. This is different.”
This segment also shows off Real Sports‘ ability to find people personally connected to a story. In this case, one of the most notable interviews comes from Jackson, the former NBA player who had been a friend of Floyd’s since high school.
“We considered each other twins. …It touched me different because I see myself down there. I see myself down there. And what plays through my mind is how could somebody who showed so much love die from showing so much hate?”
And this segment also stands out for the context it applies to this protest movement, and how that particularly fits into sports and into Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests and subsequent ouster from the NFL. Real Sports includes a 2016 interview clip with Kaepernick saying “There are a lot of things that need to change. One specifically is police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people,” plus outraged “twit” and “son of a bitch” reactions at that time from the likes of Fox News host Sean Hannity and U.S. president Donald Trump. And this segment also features sociologist and author Dr. Harry Edwards talking to Gumbel about how the current protests over the deaths of Floyd and others (including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubery) translates to what happened with Kaepernick:
“The other point that made it so resonant was just as Kaepernick had been criticized, persecuted, hounded out of the game really for taking a knee, here you have a police officer taking a knee on another human being’s neck to the point that he was dead. And people drew almost intuitively between these two instances of taking a knee. One in protest of injustice, the other in an exhibition of the supreme injustice, carried out in with such sadistic casualness about it. And everyone saw it on TV, in primetime, in living color.”
Los Angeles Sparks’ player and Turner Sports commentator Candace Parker also weighed in on that, discussing the platform athletes have:
“I think athletes have a huge platform. Kap, now, people are understanding what he was fighting for and what he was protesting. I think as athletes, it’s our job to use our platform and be expressive.”
Jacksonville Jaguars’ receiver Chris Conley is featured repeatedly here, and he discusses how he hopes support for change from white people (and specifically those in the NFL) will continue even after this immediate moment.
“You committed to something, and that can’t go away once the Xs and Os start flying. If you’re in this fight, you need to be in it. … Let’s make sure we maintain this momentum so it’s not a moment, it’s a movement. Once you see those issues, you can’t unsee them.”
And speaking of white people, Real Sports includes some notable thoughts from a few white executives and coaches, including Cuban and Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr. Here’s what Cuban said:
“For white people it’s hard to talk about race, and that’s one of the reasons I’m speaking up. The more we talk about this, the more we have these difficult conversations, maybe the more it opens up so that white people can talk, because we’re the issue.”
And Kerr said “No one who’s a white person in this country can possibly put ourselves in a Black person’s shoes, but it’s imperative that we at least try. And one of the things we have to do is learn the real history of the African-American experience and why what happened four hundred years ago still impacts the lives of African-Americans today.”
A key recent figure in the discussions here is NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, the circuit’s only Black full-time driver. Wallace has been vocal about racial issues and has called for the ban of the Confederate battle flag from NASCAR events (a policy the circuit implemented earlier this month after Wallace’s initial comments). He’s recently drawn a lot of attention after a noose was found in his garage at Talledega, leading to other drivers and crew pushing his car and standing with him ahead of Monday’s race. Wallace told Bryant that his recent comments have led to both positive feedback and negative blowback.
“Along with a lot of positive outreach, Bryant, there’s been the negative sides, people who don’t want to hear what Black Lives Matter means. They look at it as antifa, they look at it as the looting, the burning, the riots, all that stuff. They don’t want to understand that we’re simply trying to say our life matters as much as your life matters.”
On the flag specifically, Wallace said “To some it means heritage, to most it means hate, and it comes from a very negative time in this world that we are desperately trying to get away from.”
And Rivers had a particularly strong comment on that: “The swastika’s illegal, so the Confederate flag should be illegal in this country. It’s the same thing.”
Beyond that, this segment was notable for dives into other sports where Black athletes are underrepresented. Notable interviews there included PGA Tour golfer Harold Varner and NHL players Evander Kane and P.K. Subban, all of who spoke about challenges they’ve faced coming up through those sports. The segment also included some notable commentary from Richard Lapchick (a long-time academic and activist, known recently for his work as founder and director of The Institute For Diversity And Ethics In Sport), who said “This is what I’ve been encouraging athletes to do, use their voices to press your owners to hire more people of color, especially as general managers, team presidents and head coaches.” And in a transition to whether sports should resume play amidst a pandemic and how that should work, it featured a few thoughts from different angles, starting with Jackson on why he doesn’t think the NBA should come back right now:
“I feel like it’s going to take attention off the moment we’re in. Nothing is a bigger statement than those guys not playing and saying ‘Look, we need to get these laws changed now.’ And I’ve been talking with people who’ve been fighting for this moment for 56 years, and they’re telling me we’ve never had this moment.”
Meanwhile, Rivers disagreed, saying amongst other things that “I think this gives us a chance to have the mic.” But beyond the discussion of what this means for activism, there’s a big discussion of what it means for players’ health. And Rivers said he would support players who don’t want to play under these circumstances:
“I tell them I love them, and ‘We’re going to win for you.’ Because we have to honor that, Bryant, we have to respect that. This is not normal times.”
Cuban also said the NBA is open to altering their plans if health conditions change. “The minute we don’t feel like we can keep all essential personnel and players safe, that’s when everything changes.”
But there are a lot of concerns about how these current plans will work, and if they’ll actually avoid COVID-19 infections for athletes. Edwards said “The players are worried. They don’t know what they’re walking into. The protocols that they’ve been given, while they’re great on paper, how do you really institute them in such a way that people are in fact safe?” And New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty said “It just seems very hard with everything going on for us to go out there and play and actually feel safe.” The segment offered some interesting further thoughts on that, starting with doctor and former World Bank president Jim Yong Kim:
“College football, it’s going to depend on the community around it. I just think it’s very hard to do. If you’re going from one stadium to another, even if there are no fans, keeping those players safe, I think it’s going to be tough.”
Meanwhile, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said they might even be trying to get 50,000 fans in the stands this fall:
“We’re adhering to the guidelines of our state and the CDC. Now, I’m hopeful as we get closer to potentially playing this fall that that six-foot distancing would be reduced to another number that might get us up to maybe 40,000, 50,000 fans.”
And conference commissioners Bob Bowlsby (Big 12) and Larry Scott (Pac-12) spoke to Gumbel about their current reopening plans. But a couple of interviews after that, epidemiologist Zach Binney said he’s not impressed with what he’s seen from college football so far.
“A little bit of a disturbing thread that I’ve heard from some in the college athletics community is ‘Well, this is the best we can do.’ Well, we need to focus not on the best we can do, we need to focus on creating a safe enough environment for athletes to come back. If you can’t create a safe enough environment, than don’t bring them back.”
And Kim said “If you do these things, it’s predictable. Do we really think that American exceptionalism extends to viruses? I don’t think so. I think the virus will do what it does, and it will win.”
The segment wrapped up with some further thoughts on what’s ahead for the protests on racial equality, starting with tennis legend Billie Jean King:
King: “We have to keep the pedal to the medal and we have to do it every single day. The laws have to change at the local level, and the police departments, I’m starting to see that change. I am the most excited I have ever been in my life, in fact I feel like I have hair on fire at times. We truly have a chance to really go towards equality for the first time.”
New Orleans Saints’ linebacker Demario Davis added that there’s an impressive push to really remake problematic systems. “The young people don’t want to reform an oppressive system. They don’t want to return to an old model that we just make tweaks to. Their sentiments are ‘You don’t just put new apps on a phone that has a virus. You get a new phone.”
And Rivers said he’s seen a lot of pushes for change over the years, but this one does feel different. “It feels different because corporate America is involved for the first time. It feels different because it’s not just Black talk, it’s everybody talk. But we have a long way to go, and we have a lot of issues.”
Rapper and activist Killer Mike concludes the segment with some poignant thoughts. “I have to believe positive change is in the offing, because I know the alternative potentially rests in me and my anger, the anger that I felt in 1992, the anger that my father felt in 1972, the anger that his father felt in 1952. At some point, we’re going to have to have a reckoning with each other, the Black society and the white society. We must figure this out together or perish together.”
Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel premieres Tuesday, June 23 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and streaming platforms. This month’s episode also features a segment revisiting the case of Robbie Tolan being wrongfully shot by police in 2008.