EXCLUSIVE: “Any quick history lesson about how owners in sports have acted over time, how they’ve interacted with communities and governments and public coffers and everything else will tell you that greed dictates basically whatever they try to do,” Bryant Gumbel bluntly says of the motivation behind leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL to get their players back in action from the coronavirus lockdown of the past two months.
“I think they view athletes as commodities to get them to an end,” the host of HBO’s Real Sports added.
Never one to play it safe over the 25-seasons of the premium cabler’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the Emmy winning host tonight will be having a remote roundtable on the re-starting of pro sports in this deadly era of COVID-19 with players’ association bosses DeMaurice Smith of the NFL, Michele Roberts of the NBA, and Tony Clark of MLB. That pre-recorded talk comes as the Tiger Woods and Tom Brady starring The Match: Champions for Charity golf game pulled in hole in one ratings over the weekend for the HBO’s cousin stations TNT, TBS, truTV and HLN and the NHL unveiled multi-pronged plans on Tuesday to get skates back on the ice by the summer.
With one Peabody Award already on the shelf and a new nomination announced on May 6, the monthly Real Sports is leaning into a cultural and financial conversation that could rule the table for how America works in a world where coronavirus could become the norm.
Looking at a summer already absent the Olympics, Gumbel spoke to me about the role of the show, tonight’s topics, the hard bottom line and how so much of what owners and leagues have been saying reminds him of the platitudes that sadly too often follow mass shootings in the land of the free, the home of the brave.
DEADLINE: First question, is it time for sports to reopen or are we pushing this too fast too soon?
GUMBEL: You know what, my first, quick answer is to tell you I don’t know. I mean I really don’t. I think anybody who tells you they know is blowing smoke.
Am I personally comfortable with it? If I were in their position I would not be, but that’s me. I don’t know if they’re venturing into something that they’ve thought through. In some instances, it would seem like it’s a little bit too rushed. In other instanced, I don’t understand why they’re trying to get back, to be honest.
DEADLINE: As you have pointed out, one of the phrases that has come up again and again in this pandemic, in sports and other arenas is “heath and safety.” Is that still the primary concern in your view over two months into lockdown as states reopen?
GUMBEL: It’s like tears and prayers, isn’t it? We go oh, tears and prayers after a school shooting, tears and prayers. How about we actually do something about it?
DEADLINE: The moves we are seeing with the NBA now talking to ESPN and Disney about perhaps having games at the relative sanctuary of Disney World, the NFL announcing a fall schedule earlier this month, the NHL and MLB talking about possible plans. Has health and safety been put on the bench to big money as the leagues look to squeeze something out of what remain of their seasons?
GUMBEL: Any quick history lesson about how owners in sports have acted over time, how they’ve interacted with communities and governments and public coffers and everything else will tell you that greed dictates basically whatever they try to do.
So yes, do I think health and safety is their priority, I would hope so. I would say the history of what they’ve done suggests otherwise. They are businesspeople who are trying to maximize profits, and I think whatever you hear them talk about the welfare of and athlete it is just so much public relations. I think they view athletes as commodities to get them to an end.
DEADLINE: To that end, this weekend’s The Match: Champions for Charity golf match with Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady Charles Barkley made a distinct point of saying during how important he believed live sports to be. Charles told CNN: “I’ve learned something through this pandemic, we need sports, man. Are they the most important thing in the world? Not even close. But the one thing they do, they take your mind off of all the other stuff going on in the world.” How does that land with you?
GUMBEL: I think that’s absolutely true. However, it depends too. Do we need sports, with a capital N like we need food, like we need family, and like we need water? No.
Do we need sports with a small N? Absolutely.
It enriches our lives. It gives us reason to cheer. It pleases us. It’s wonderful entertainment.
We need sports in that respect but is it essential to life? Can we live without it for a given period of time? Yes, I think the answer to that is we can. I’d rather we didn’t. I really would. I would much rather we didn’t. I love sports as much as anyone. Do I feel that we have to race back out and get sports at the expense of a lot of young people risking their lives? No, I don’t.
DEADLINE: Some nations like South Korea and Germany have brought live sports back with specterless Bundesliga soccer matches and baseball and soccer in the Asian nation. Cultural differences aside, are Americans going to want games without fans?
GUMBEL: I think at this point they’ve been deprived that if you ask most Americans if the choice is spectatorless sports or no sports they’ll take spectatorless sports.
But to answer your question about how much we can learn from Germany and South Korea, I think the elephant in the room is that in both of those instances they had responsible heads of government who approached the pandemic with a modicum of seriousness and maturity and intelligence and foresight. We’ve had none of that and so we are not just behind the eight ball. We’re behind the building. I mean we’re not even close to where they are in terms of getting the proper guidance and in terms of having the correct precautions in place. That’s why I’m so concerned about this.
DEADLINE: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who probably is one of the few responsible people who’s been dealing with this at a high level, has out and out that there should be no sports or no one in a stadium watching sports until at least the fall and maybe even next year and that’s even depending what could happen with a probable second wave…
GUMBEL: You made a great point, which is everybody’s thinking about let’s bring it back, let’s get everybody tested, let’s stay in a controlled environment. Nobody’s given a thought to this second wave. What happens if and when a team becomes infected, a team has to withdraw and now you’ve got a schedule with a hole in it because the Kansas City Chiefs can’t play or the 76ers can’t play. Then what are you doing?
All-new on #RealSports, Bryant Gumbel is joined by heads of the major sports unions: DeMaurice Smith of the @NFLPA, Michele Roberts of the @NBPA and Tony Clark of the @MLBPA. Tune in tonight at 10PM on @HBO. pic.twitter.com/lke0KhT4SY
— Real Sports (@RealSportsHBO) May 26, 2020
DEADLINE: On tonight’s show, you sit down remotely with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark for a roundtable on what the short-term future could be. None of them are wearing rose colored glasses on this, but based on what you and I have discussed, do they have a Plan B for their members if management and owner start tightening the vice?
GUMBEL: I think they do have a plan to back up their members, so I do think those three are very responsible, but I think they are much more responsible than the people they’re sitting across the table from.
DEADLINE: How so?
GUMBEL: Historically, whenever there’s been a work stoppage of any kind, for whatever reason, the public likes to blame the player and I mean you take a guy like DeMaurice Smith, his constituency has a lot of varying and broad interests. It’s unreasonable to expect that they’re going to come up with a plan in which even 90 percent of them are going to think is great. What happened to the other 10 percent?
DEADLINE: So, with those odds in mind, and the various actions we’ve seen from league bosses from the decisive actions of the NBA’s Adam Silver to slower move by others at the beginning of this crisis, I feel like when we’re talking about sports here we’re falling prey to what I think is a great fallacy that occurs far too often in American public life, which is we’re talking about this as a monolith. So, in your opinion, what is the sports league that should least be considering coming back and what is the sports league that should be most considering coming back or popular sports?
GUMBEL: Obviously, the ones that are most impacted and the ones that are least able to come back are those in which close contact is an essential part of the game, and that would be football then followed by hockey. Close contact is an essential part of the game.
You add to that the fact that there are so many people involved…if you’re talking about two basketball teams, yes, there’s close contact but we’re really only talking about 20, 24 people. If we’re talking about football, there not only is extreme close contact. We’re talking about 100 people, 110, 120 people and so your risk is greater by that number.
You mentioned Adam Silver. I mean you picked the gold standard among the commissioners. He is the one that of all has, in my opinion, shown the greatest degree of maturity and responsibility. I wouldn’t necessarily extend that compliment to the others.
DEADLINE: And that is, in a sense the other elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t get 50 governors and the federal government to agree on a universal standard to counter coronavirus and reopening. How are we going to get 32 NFL teams, 30 NBA teams or 31 NHL teams to come up with a standard for their respective leagues? We all appreciate things in theory, but I don’t see the reality of this happening even more so when you bring up the excellent point of what if the Philadelphia 76ers can’t play because two of their members are now found positive?
GUMBEL: There’s so many little odysseys in getting this done that it makes you wonder if they haven’t thought this through. Let’s take, for example, the NBA again, and I’m going to assume you’re a Lakers fan.
DEADLINE: I’m actually a Detroit Pistons fan, but I do live in the great City of Angels so of course my heart breaks every time the Lakers lose, except to the Pistons …
GUMBEL: (LAUGHS) I get that, but let’s take, for example, that the NBA comes back and the Lakers, as a group say we’d like to be a part of that.
What happens if two or three of those Lakers have somebody in their family, someone is close to them with a preexisting condition and they determine this isn’t worth it to them. They don’t want to take this chance. Well, now what are you going to do? What is the provision for those players who want to opt out for reasons of either precondition or family or their own particular safety and decide this isn’t worth it?
DEADLINE: In that context, the NHL laid out its plan to start training camps later this summer over the long weekend and today Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined his optimistic idea to have 24-team playoffs with dates TBD. What’s your take on that?
GUMBEL: Having not studied them, I really can’t speak to the new NHL measures. I’ve high regard for Donald Fehr and the NHL players so I can only hope for their continued safety. Given Gary Bettman’s track record on concussions, they’ve reasons to be wary.
DEADLINE: You recorded the interview with DeMaurice Smith, Michele Roberts and Tony Clark a few days ago, so with events and news moving as fast as they are in this pandemic media environment and the few sports we have pulling in big audiences, a fact lost on leagues, owners or broadcasters. How do you pull off a roundtable and protect its relevance?
GUMBEL: You know Dominic, I’m not a guy who tries to second guess what other people are interested in. At the same time, what I didn’t want to do was ask them something that would have them looking foolish by the time it ran.
So what we were trying to look at was big ideas and conceptual ideas and things that would live on no matter what decisions were made between the time we taped this and the time when most people may get to view it. So that, to me, was an interesting diplomatic stance of trying to make sure to get something worthwhile without getting lost in the minutia of something that may be valid on Friday and irrelevant on Saturday.
DEADLINE: Having said that, let’s take it way up to the nose bleeds, is COVID19 the biggest story of your career?
GUMBEL: Wow. The intelligent part of me says yes because there’s never been anything that has been so all-encompassing in my life.
That said, I am, in a relative sense, more on the sidelines of this than I was when I was engaged in the daily basis for two hours a day and speaking with world leaders and government officials on an ongoing basis. In other words, I was back then intimately involved 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s no longer the case and so it’s very difficult for me to make that judgement right now.