Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Is Bryant Gumbel a Racist?

It’s a lengthy list – sports personalities, some journalists, some league executives who after making remarks that where deemed racially insensitive, lost their jobs and watched their careers end. Some of these people where once considered pillars in the sports world, examples of the good in sports. For these people, one misstep cost them their careers. In the last six months Bryant Gumbel has not once, but twice made would could be considered racially insensitive comments. One directed at Caucasian’s (commonly referred to as White Americans, as defined by the American government and Census Bureau), the other at the leading African-American leader associated with the National Football League.

Comments Gumbel made last week at the very least were bothersome, and in reality could be considered radically insensitive comments directed at leaders in football’s African-American community. Outgoing National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue lashed out at the comments Gumbel directed at NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. Both Gumbel and Upshaw are African Americans.

Having crossed over that mythical line in the sand not once but twice, it is time someone (in this case the National Football League) ended their association with Bryant Gumbel. The National Football League hired the talented broadcaster as the play-by-play voice for the eight late season games the NFL Network will broadcast. Bryant Gumbel is the last person the NFL wants their product associated with. His archaic comments on Gene Upshaw reach back to a long gone era in the sports world – when racism was a terrible guiding force, the plague of the sports world for too long.

Last Tuesday (August 15. 2006) as Gumbel does at end of each episode of HBO’s Real Sports (Gumbel hosts the award winning program), ended the show with an editorial comment.

"Before he cleans out his office," Gumbel said. "Have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."

On every possible level Bryant Gumbel’s remarks border on racism. For anyone, let alone for an African American to suggest another African American was being led around on a dog leash is hurtful and disrespectful. One of the terrible lasting images during a terrible period in American history is of white people leading around their black slaves using the leash Gumbel refers to.

Monday, in one of his last media gatherings before he passes the NFL to Roger Goodell in a few weeks, current NFL commissioner directed some very pointed comments at Gumbel.

Realizing how concerned Tagliabue was with Gumel’s comments, Tagliabue was asked if Gumbel should remain as part of the NFL Network’s broadcast team.

"Having looked at how other people have had buyer's remorse when they took positions, I guess they suggest to me that maybe he's having buyer's remorse and they call into question his desire to do the job and to do it in a way that we in the NFL would expect it to be done," the commissioner said.

Troy Vincent, the NFLPA president and Buffalo Bills safety, called Gumbel's comments "inappropriate" and "detrimental."
"He's entitled to speak his mind ... and he felt that was his forum to do so," Vincent told The Associated Press Tuesday after a Bills training camp practice in suburban Rochester. "But I just thought the timing of things, there's too many good things going on — we just announced a new commissioner — in our sport to have these kind of blemishes."

The NFL Networks interest in hiring Gumbel was in part based on his longtime association as the host of NBC’s NFL coverage in the 1980’s.

Gumbel’s contract with the NFL Network allows him complete freedom to say whatever he wants to say during a game broadcast. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a suggestion a sports broadcaster should be censored for what they say. However there is a line in the sand, when making a statement is simply wrong.

Shortly before the 2006 Turin Games, Gumbel offered an interested opinion on why he didn’t particularly like the Winter Olympics. Once again Gumbel choose HBO’s Real Sports as his pulpit.

"Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them ... Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts 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 pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won ... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they’re done, when we can move on to March Madness — for God’s sake, let the games begin."

Al Campanis, a teammate of Jackie Robinson when Jackie broke baseball’s color line in 1946 with the Montreal Royals, then the Brooklyn Dodgers Triple-A affiliate, 41 years later speaking on ABC’s newsmagazine program Nightline, on a show (April 15, 1987) dedicated to celebrating Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, watched his life fall apart after making what were called racially insensitive remarks.

Campanis, who had played alongside Robinson and was known for being close to him, was being interviewed about the subject, and Nightline anchorman Ted Koppel had just asked him why, at the time, there had been few black managers and no black general managers in Major League Baseball.

Campanis' reply was that blacks "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager" for these positions; elsewhere in the interview, he said that blacks are often poor swimmers "because they don't have the buoyancy." He resigned as Dodgers general manager two days later. A lifelong commitment to baseball ended overnight. The general manager of the franchise that broke baseball’s color line experienced a terrible life altering experience.

In an interview the next year, Campanis attempted to clarify that he was referring to the lack of African-Americans with experience in these areas, rather than their innate abilities; he also said that he was "wiped out" when the interview took place, and therefore not entirely himself. Many other figures in baseball, such as fellow Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda and former Dodgers player Don Newcombe, spoke out in Campanis' defense.

Less then a year later on Jan. 15, 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder had his own career ending experience. Dan Rather then the host of “CBS Evening News” aired a tape of comments Snyder had made earlier that day at Duke Zeibert's restaurant in Washington, D.C. Ironically the film was shot by WRC-TV, the Washington affiliate of network rival NBC, and WRC reporter Ed Hotaling acknowledged that The Greek had said he was speaking off the record during the interview, Rather decided Snyder's remarks deserved national coverage.
Nevertheless, Rather decided the comments deserved national attention, in Dan Rather’s world this was an important news story.

"The black is the better athlete," The Greek said. "And he practices to be the better athlete, and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes way back to the slave period. The slave owner would breed this big black with this big black woman so he could have a big black kid. That's where it all started."

After the segment ran, Rather did allow Snyder to apologize for his terribly insensitive comments.

"I'm truly sorry for my remarks earlier today and I offer a full, heartfelt apology to all I may have offended," Rather quoted Snyder as saying.

That didn’t matter to CBS. They fired the longtime member of CBS’ NFL pre game show the next day. Snyder’s segment at the end of each Sunday’s pre game show offered The Greek’s (Snyder was Jewish) handicapping and highlighting several games each week. It was the most popular segment on each week’s show; making CBS pre game show the highest rated NFL pre game show. The Greek wasn’t just good for business, he was the business.

Gumbel for his part made it clear to New York Newsday; he isn’t apologizing for anything he said.

"I've never exactly been a shrinking violet when it comes to criticism," said Gumbel, who from his first meeting with NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein said he wasn't interested in the job if it was going to compromise his role as "Real Sports" host.

"One of my first questions when we had lunch was, 'What does the commissioner think about this?' Because when [Bornstein] asked me I kind of thought, 'Does he watch the program? Does Paul know about this? Are you going to go behind his back?' He said, 'No, Paul signed off on this, thought it was a great idea.' I said, 'OK.'

"I'm not going to look for opportunities to take shots at the NFL," Gumbel said. "I will be honest where criticism is warranted."

If you’re expecting the NFL Network to do anything about the comments Gumbel made about the imminent departure of Paul Taglabue, just read the comments NFL Network spokesperson Seth Palansky told The New York Times Richard Sandomir.

“We still expect him to call our games,” Palansky said. “There’s no issue there. We want to let the commissioner’s words speak for themselves.”

Then came the true bottom line: marketing the NFL Network as the home of eight Thursday and Saturday games. “This is why people should call their cable operator to demand the NFL Network,” Palansky said.

The good news the NFL Network is owned by the National Football League. Palansky’s focus is on growing the NFL Network as a brand. At the end of the day, the league itself will decide if they want to be associated with Bryant Gumbel.

The National Football League was very upset with ESPN after the network produced the series “Playmakers” Based on a fictional NFL team, the show portrayed NFL players as womanizers, drug users and for the most part men without any shred of common public decency. The series debuted on August 26, 2003. ESPN and ABC (both with Disney as their respective parent companies) had two eight-year contracts worth nearly $9.5 billion with the NFL to show games on ABC and the sports network.

The NFL was very unhappy with the series. Gatorade a key NFL sponsor and a company who bought into ESPN’s concept for Playmakers, ended their association with the show before the first and only season ended.

"We grew increasingly uncomfortable with the [Playmakers] content," says Gatorade spokesman Andy Horrow, who confirmed the decision. "We felt that the show was in conflict with what we stand for as a brand." Unlike the broadcast networks, which provide the advertisers with previews of TV shows that might be controversial, ESPN refused to release Playmakers early, Horrow said. An ESPN spokesman declined to comment.

Once the 11-week series ended, Tagliabue stepped into the debate, contacting then Disney president suggesting in no uncertain terms the NFL was very upset about the show’s content. ESPN’s first decision was to stop running “Playmakers” promotional spots during ESPN’s broadcasts of Sunday night NFL games. In early February ESPN made the only decision they could relating to the future of Playmakers – canceling the show after one season.

''We proved that we could succeed in doing a dramatic series,'' Mark Shapiro, then the executive vice president of ESPN, said. ''Mission accomplished. It played to men and brought in women. We showed we don't have to be as reliant on games as we have in the past.''

But, Shapiro added: ''It's our opinion that we're not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we've done it, and continued to carry it over the NFL's objections. To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner's face.''

The program was a ratings success for ESPN, averaging a 1.9 Nielsen rating, or 1.62 million households. For ESPN and was the network's highest-rated program except for its Sunday night NFL and Saturday prime-time college football games. Even more important it represented groundbreaking programming for ESPN’s entertainment division, an important step in the evolution of ESPN as a business.

John Eisendrath, the creator and executive producer of the series, made it clear to the New York Times when ESPN pulled the plug on the show he believed that the cancellation had everything to do with the NFL’s views on how the league was portrayed in the series.

''The NFL is entitled to its opinion,'' Eisendrath said, ''but I think they're wrong, and I think they're bullies. They're a monopoly. I think it fell to ESPN to have the strength to stand up to the NFL's opinion. It's offensive to me that they would bully ESPN that way, so I'm most offended by the NFL's attitude, which is blatantly hypocritical considering some of the things that go on in the league, which far exceed anything I wrote about.''

If history teaches us anything, it’s not a matter of if, but when the National Football League distances itself from Bryant Gumbel. Gumbel is free to have whatever opinions he wants, but as others have learnt there’s a price to pay when the opinions you have deal with race and can be considered insensitive.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Source cited in this Insider Report: New York Newsday and The New York Times