Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is Bryant Gumbel a racist (redux)

On August 23, 2006 Sports Business News asked a question: “Is Bryant Gumbel a racist” Today we ask the same question. Is the host of HBO’s Real Sports a racist? And more importantly should HBO Sports hold Bryant Gumbel accountable for this actions. They didn’t in 2006 and unless Hell Freezes over they’re likely not going to fire Gumbel this time.

The latest episode in Gumbel’s interesting choice of words took place Tuesday night on HBO’s award winning program Real Sports. Gumbel who has won an Emmy or two in his time directed venomous comments at NBA commissioner David Stern suggesting that Stern is "some kind of modern plantation overseer" and said the commissioner treats the players like they were "his boys" and "hired hands". The images of a plantation and “his boys” evoke a dark era in American history, linked with salivary when America’s African American population were treated as property, as slaves. A majority of NBA players are African-American. On every possible level Bryant Gumbel is wrong for evoking the image of African-American’s being treated as slaves and linking that to David Stern, regardless of how Gumbel feels about the NBA lockout.

"Stern's version of what has been going on behind closed doors has of course been disputed, but his efforts were typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys. It's part of Stern's M.O., like his past self-serving edicts on dress code and the questioning of officials. His moves were intended to do little more than show how he's the one keeping the hired hands in their place." Gumbel announced as Tuesday nights Real Sports came to an end.

This isn’t the first time and given his track record won’t be the last time Gumbel plays the racist card.

Twice in 2006, Gumbel 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 at the time.

Comments Gumbel made in August 2006 on Real Sports at the late Gene Upshaw then the head of the National Football League Players Association Gene Upshaw were troublesome to say the least. Then National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue in the midst of his retirement on the eve of the 2006 NFL season took exceptions to comments Gumbel directed at the late Gene Upshaw. Both Gumbel and Upshaw are African Americans.

"Before he cleans out his office," Gumbel said on the August 15, 2006 edition of Real Sports. "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."

Bryant Gumbel’s remarks bordered on racism today as they did five years ago. 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.

At the time Gumbel was handling the play-by-play for the NFL Networks Thursday night late season games. The NFL Network chose to not renew Gumbel’s contract (after the 2006 season had been completed), but at the time continued their relationship with Gumbel, something Tagliabue took exception too.

"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," Tagliabue said at the time.

Troy Vincent, then 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 in 2006. "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 two incidents on HBO Real Sports tell only part of Bryant Gumbel’s racially insensitive past. 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."

Others have been held accountable for comments that were deemed racially insensitive, more then remarks that can be called “politically incorrect”, but not the HBO broadcaster.

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 crossed over that line. 41 years later speaking on ABC’s newsmagazine program Nightline, on a show (April 15, 1987) dedicated to celebrating Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Campanis 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 shattered overnight.

In an interview the following 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, 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 long-time 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 at the time. The Greek wasn’t just good for business, he was the business.

What was strange then as it is now about the NFL’s not firing Gumbel after he made his comments in August 2006, was the NFL’s history of how they dealt with an image created by the media they didn’t appreciate.

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 at the time (forget about how big the contract is five years later).

Once the 11-week series ended (why HBO has recreated the series remains a mystery (Tagliabue then the NFL commissioner) stepped into the debate, contacting the Disney president suggesting in no uncertain terms the NFL wasn’t happy with 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 2003 (before they bought the rights to Monday Night Football). In early February 2004 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 after ESPN pulled the plug. ''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 and 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 back in 2004, ''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.''

Gumbel didn’t care in 2006 and he likely doesn’t care today what anyone thinks about his comments, something he made clear Tuesday night: "Some will of course cringe at that characterization but Stern's disdain for the players is as palpable and pathetic as his motives are transparent," Gumbel said.

Let’s clear up a few issues, the current negotiations between the NBA and the NBA Players Association has nothing whatsoever to do with slavery or David Stern not respecting anyone. Anyone who has ever met or spoken with David Stern (an honor this writer has had several times) knows the NBA commissioner is asking in what he believes are the best interests of the 30 NBA teams, the cities they play in and the people who own those 30 teams. Those interests may not be the same as the men (a majority who are African American) but they are racist nor should David Stern’s actions be considered to be racist. Bryant Gumbel has every right to be upset about the NBA lockout and to blame David Stern if he so chooses, but its his words that need to questioned.

The bigger question – is Bryant Gumbel a racist? Given his record of comments that at the least border on being racist it’s a very good question to ask and one that needs to be debated. Bryant Gumel is a very smart man, one whose opinion is well worth the questions that are being asked in this column and someone for the most part worth listening too.

There is a fine line in the sand between asking raising legitimate issues, offering your opinion and making racist comments. If it had happened once; Bryant Gumbel’s comments may be considered provocative. If it had happened twice maybe Bryant Gumbel’s comments would be considered insensitive. But this is the third time Bryant Gumbel has made comments that can be considered racist and if this were a baseball game – three strikes and Bryant Gumbel is out. Only Bryant Gumbel knows if Bryant Gumbel is a racist but its time HBO Sports held Bryant Gumbel accountable for his actions.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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