A professional wingsuiter jumps off a cliff with nothing but a squirrel suit and a helmet. He invites a cameraman to capture his majestic yet dangerous free-fall through a valley of forestry terrain. Later, the wingsuiter shares his thrilling flight on social media for all to admire. But let’s shift the focus away from the actual jumper and turn our lens to the figure who’s often left out of the equation: the cameraman. “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” aims to tell these untold stories.
“Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” hosted by former “Today Show” host Bryant Gumbel, is an investigative news series on HBO. Airing monthly, each hourlong show contains three features along with a brief follow-up story at the end.
I know what you’re thinking: “I’d never watch that because it’s all about sports, and I hate sports!”
Don’t be fooled by the show’s title, because its content actually transcends athletics. “Real Sports” doesn’t just feature stories about elite athletes — it shows stories about humans.
According to its Facebook page, “Real Sports” goes “beyond statistics with an inside look at the modern world of sports, highlighted by unique and in-depth profiles on athletes and trailblazing newsmakers, timely investigative pieces and impactful global issues that shape and transform the athletic landscape.”
Sports fan and non-sports fans alike know the names of renowned athletes. People celebrate sports figures like Lebron James, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Alex Morgan, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronda Rousey as national heroes whenever they win championships, gold medals and other accolades.
While the show recognizes the significance of superb athletes, Gumbel and his correspondents shine the spotlight on those who may not be all-stars to the world but are warriors in their communities.
For instance, one segment focused on a 7-year-old golfer named Tommy Morrissey. With his impressive 200-yard drive, the young prodigy competed in the World Youth Golf Championship for three years in a row. But in true “Real Sports” fashion, there’s a catch: Morrissey only has one arm.
Like all experienced journalists, “Real Sports” correspondents always consult with experts to help further explain the intricacies of sports phenomena. In Morrissey’s case, reporter David Scott spoke with a neurosurgeon who studies the early connection between the brain and physical movement to elaborate on Morrissey’s unconventional yet efficient technique.
Some segments are uplifting while others are heart-wrenching. The program’s ability to capture the raw emotions of athletes conveys that sports aren’t all fun and games — Gumbel and his team of reporters reveal the trials and tribulations within sports.
In 2019, “Real Sports” aired a segment about the tenacity of Colin Cook. The passionate surfer desperately tried to get back on his board after losing his leg in a shark attack. After working through the psychological and emotional toil of his traumatic injury, Cook decided to hold his head high and not allow his disability to define him.
In response, the man who couldn’t live without surfing built a specialized prosthetic capable of gripping a surfboard. He courageously went back to the shore, where he lost so much, to rediscover his happiness.
Aside from mainstream sports like football, soccer and basketball, “Real Sports” features nontraditional ones like ice fishing, freediving and eSports. The question of whether or not people should classify activities like chess and competitive wine tasting as “sports” is highly debatable. Regardless of popular opinion, “Real Sports” still gives these unorthodox athletes the glory and attention they deserve.
In Season 25, “Real Sports” correspondent Soledad O’Brien spoke with a man responsible for restoring America’s enthusiasm for chess. Rex Sinquefield created the largest chess club in the world and is a member of the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis. Sinquefield invites grandmaster chess players to visit the Gateway to The West for tournaments throughout the year.
His impact on chess stretches further than anyone would have expected. Some St. Louis public schools even incorporate the game into their curriculums, and local colleges offer scholarships to elite players. Without “Real Sports,” Sinquefield and his accomplishments would go unnoticed to anyone who’s never played his favorite game.
Also, “Real Sports” isn’t afraid to challenge the multibillion-dollar sports industry by tackling controversial issues. The correspondents aren’t advocates per se, but it’s clear that they’re willing to share stories of injustices for the sake of exposing the truth.
A segment about horseracing looked past the beauty of one of America’s oldest sports traditions, as the program targeted the reality that 2,000 racehorses die in the U.S. every year.
In 2008, Bernard Goldberg, the reporter for this segment, spoke with a thoroughbred trainer at Mountaineer Park in Virginia. The trainer mentioned a man who purchased injured horses for a cheap price; “The Meat Man,” as he was called, auctioned these horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.
After the segment aired, racetracks across the country established rules against selling racehorses to slaughterhouses. “Real Sports” revisited the story in 2019 because, unfortunately, those rules were continuously broken.
As any professional athlete would say, sports encompass so much more than kicking a ball into a net or sprinting into the endzone — the competitions are filled with dreams, opportunities and second chances. But even the most eager and relentless athletes don’t always see their hard work pay off. In some cases, they don’t even reach life’s greatest milestones.
“Real Sports” reporter David Scott portrayed the story of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old African American boy from Texas who aspired to one day play college football. In 2017, Edwards was fatally shot in the head by a police officer who mistakenly thought Edwards was carrying a gun.
Nicknamed “Smiley” because of his contagious ear-to-ear grin, the honor roll student was deeply loved by his parents, siblings, teammates, coaches and peers. “Real Sports” exclusively acquired footage of Edwards’ final moments in this sorrowful investigative piece.
The show premiered on HBO nearly 25 years ago, and it continues to feature intriguing stories. With 32 Emmy Awards (and counting), three Columbia University Awards for broadcast journalism, two Peabody Awards and other honors, the docuseries takes its rightful place as one of the best programs for enterprise and investigative pieces.