Bryant Gumbel: Trailblazing Sportscaster Or Controversial Figure?

Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel has led a spectacular career in journalism. As PBS notes, he has won four Emmy Awards, an Edward R. Murrow Award, and an Edward Weintal Prize, among many other accolades. His reporting of Vietnam 10 years after the war ended earned him an George Foster Peabody Award, then decades later, his work on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" won him two more in 2012 and 2015. He is one of the longest serving co-hosts of NBC's "Today," his 15 years surpassed only by Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. He has also hosted multiple shows on CBS.

Gumbel was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 29, 1948. The degree he earned from Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, was in Russian history, and he also holds honorary doctorates from several higher learning institutions. His broadcast career began in 1972 when he started as the sportscaster for Los Angeles' KNBC TV. From there, he went on to interview some of the world's most successful and powerful people, reporting on hard-hitting topics across the globe. Let's take a look at the life and career of Bryant Gumbel. 

Bryant Gumbel's sports reporting goes way beyond the game

Bryant Gumbel is not the kind of sportscaster who peppers in a few "boomshakalakas" during the highlight reels before calling it a day. His reporting — even, or rather, especially in sports — is so in-depth and insightful that the Peabody Awards said, "Bryant Gumbel's long-running series could just as easily be called 'Real life.' Sports is its springboard, but from its inception it has been more concerned with culture, ethics and human striving than with winning streaks or batting averages."

The magazine-style "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" has taken award-winning deep dives into specific issues related to sports, such as a hazing ritual at Florida A&M that took the life of a young drum major in 2011, and the lives of gay professional athletes who had taken the bold step of coming out of the closet. The show's Peabody-winning 2012 season looked into the detrimental effects of concussions on professional football players.

"Real Sports" won another Peabody in 2015 for its exposure of the devastation that the sport of trophy hunting takes on elephant populations in Africa, which led correspondent David Scott to investigate the even greater threat of poaching. As several universities, organizations, and awards programs have recognized over the years, Bryant Gumbel's reporting never leaves a stone unturned.

People's racist opinions don't bother Bryant Gumbel

One of the characteristics that has served Gumbel well in his decades-long journalism career is his self-confidence. It's something that he views as essential to his profession. "Anybody who sits in front of a camera has to have an ego," he said, according to the Baltimore Sun. But Gumbel's critics tend to describe his self-confidence as arrogance, while white journalists get called things like "aggressive" and "assertive." Gumbel asked the reporter if his ego were any bigger than those of successful white broadcasters like Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, and Dan Rather. "I would say no," he said. "Do I try to control my program any more than they try to control theirs?"

But he has little time for such obvious racial prejudice. "I rarely talk about it," Gumbel said. "People who are inclined to believe things like that without verification of any kind, why should I care about their opinions?"

Gumbel's self-confidence has been a point of contention since early in his career. He had to answer cries of arrogance in 1988, when he was chosen to host the Olympics, held in Seoul, South Korea, that year. "If you're going to be successful in network TV, you've got to be a take-charge individual, forthright, assertive," he told the Los Angeles Times. "In the minds of some Americans it's still a shock to see a Black guy demonstrating those qualities. As a result, I'm perceived as more arrogant than Ted Koppel."

Bryant Gumbel officially hates the NRA

That L.A. Times piece quoted Gumbel from an interview he did with Playboy: "I'm a raucous guy who, for better or worse, has this reputation for being a brawler in terms of his personal dealings, who doesn't mind screaming or telling it like it is. I'm about as subtle as a punch in the face."

And he wasn't kidding. In 2015, he gave Rolling Stone a good example of telling it like it is when he openly expressed his negative opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA). "There are few things I hate more than the NRA. I mean truly," he said. "I think they're pigs. I think they don't care about human life. I think they are a curse upon the American landscape. So we go that on record."

But sometimes Gumbel's strong opinions make their way onto the record by accident. As Salon reports, Gumbel was accidentally caught on camera in June 2000 giving his unfiltered opinion of an interviewee who defended the Boy Scouts' policy of excluding gay men as leaders. "What a f****** idiot," he ended up saying on national television. But while he later admitted that he had been wrong to even accidentally drop an on-air F-bomb, he never backed down from the meat and potatoes of his statement. The conservative media watchdog site NewsBusters pointed out that Gumbel later "bragged" about being "correct" about his description of the homophobic interviewee to talk show hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Rippa.

Prince showed Bryant Gumbel off on his last day at Today

One of the many feathers in Bryant Gumbel's hat is that he conducted the first-ever live sit-down interview with the one, the only, the inimitable Prince. According to Ultimate Prince, the two had become friends off camera, particularly at New York Knicks basketball games. Gumbel was able to get the famously reclusive singer to open up on "Today" about difficult aspects of his life, such as his relationship with his wife and the death of his baby boy. At the end of the interview, Gumbel eased tensions by touching on a favorite subject of Prince's: his clothes. Prince laughed as he answered that no, he did not own a blazer or pleated khakis. "Would you ever wear my shoes?" Gumbel asked. "Let me see," said Prince, who took one look at the broadcaster's footwear and cried out, "Hell no!"

Little did Gumbel know, however, that Prince would go on to eat those words. On his final day as co-host of "Today," Prince surprised him with an unexpected cameo. But that wasn't the only surprise. Prince came on set in costume: a businessman's suit identical to the one Gumbel was wearing that day. Prince said it was his wife's idea, and that she also said to impersonate him on air. "Take care, Bryant," the singer said, eliciting laughter from everyone on camera.

Gumbel still bros out with disgraced co-host Matt Lauer

In November 2017, the longest serving "Today" co-host, Matt Lauer, was fired from the job he'd held for 20 years after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. His co-anchors at the time, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, told viewers the day the news broke that they were both "heartbroken" about what had happened, but they were among a minority of people who had sympathy for Lauer.

Neither has Bryant Gumbel turned his back on his friend. "He's my best buddy," Gumbel told the New York Daily News in 2017. "I was the best man at his wedding. He was the best man at mine. I still love him!" According to In Touch Weekly, the two bros were reportedly in "secret talks" plotting Lauer's return to TV in 2019. "Matt and Bryant are still extremely close friends," said an unnamed source. "This just might be Matt's chance to show that he's turned over a new leaf!"

But more allegations against Lauer came later that year, according to Town & Country. Journalist Ronan Farrow published a damning book about Lauer and alleged misconduct with his former colleague Brooke Nevils. There has been no gossip about a Gumbel/Lauer collab since then.

David Letterman's shenanigans were not appreciated

In 1985, executive producer of the "Today" show, Steve Friedman, orchestrated a stunt that did not go over well with Bryant Gumbel, to put it mildly. The producer asked "Late Night" host David Letterman to make a scene by interrupting "Today" during a unique, prime-time live episode. Bryant's co-host, Jane Pauley, explained to the Spokane Chronicle, "[Friedman's] idea was that it would be spontaneous, and it would make a great prime-time show. It would make an event that we would have to react to, and he was willing to take the chance. He was willing to risk me and Bryant humiliating ourselves."

Even though it was Pauley who was interviewing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas of the show "Miami Vice," Gumbel was furious and directed all his anger towards Letterman. In an interview on "The Seth Davis Show," Gumbel said, "I was angry, and [Letterman] knows it. If I could've gotten to him, I'd have hit him." He then added, "I'm sure had I done it on his show, he wouldn't have thought it was funny. He wouldn't have. And so, when we were off the air, I was livid."

The incident escalated into a bitter feud lasting years because Gumbel demanded apologies, and Letterman made jokes about it on "Late Night." However, the two eventually talked it out as Gumbel also told Davis, "He and I, we've long since made up, and you know, we're friends now. We swap notes all the time and everything else. I like David, but yeah, I was mad."

Comedians have disliked jokes about him

To many in the U.S., Bryant Gumbel has been seen as a trailblazer for his impressive career in journalism spanning decades. At the same time, he was also insulted with insinuations that he is not a part of the Black community. While interviewing Gumbel, Chris Rock admitted on his show, "Ten years ago I did a joke about you that was like really bad and it was like, 'If somebody told Bryant Gumbel he was Black, he'd have a heart attack.' And it was like, it came from like my ignorance of this is where I grew up and everything. Any Black guy that spoke well, it was considered white. I'm glad that people are growing the f*** up."

A similar controversial joke was made about Gumbel and Wayne Brady by Paul Mooney on "Chappelle's Show," and Brady was very vocal afterward about how he thought it was distasteful. The comedian has not only tweeted about the joke not being funny, but in an interview with "The Breakfast Club," he also described in detail his problems with joke. Brady strongly disliked being mocked for branching out to audiences outside of Black culture and added, "But then, you're gonna s*** all over Bryant Gumbel's accomplishments." The comedian was clearly not happy with how the joke was meant to bring both him and Gumbel down.

Bryant Gumbel apologized for his insulting memo

In 1980, Willard Scott was brought on board as weatherman for "Today" due to his unique approach to the craft. As a former Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald for TV, Scott aimed to put on a good performance rather than just be an onscreen meteorologist. However, his approach clashed with co-host Bryant Gumbel, leading to a lot of drama.

Gumbel wrote what was supposed to be a confidential memo to an executive at NBC, but the contents were later leaked to The New York Times. It contained scathing criticisms of his coworker that deeply hurt the weatherman, such as the statement that Scott "holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste." In retrospect, Gumbel acknowledged he was in the wrong and told Barbara Walters (via The Buffalo News), "I used language that probably was more colorful and more provocative than it needed to be." The co-host felt terrible over what he had done and repeatedly called Scott to apologize because even though his words were harsh, he did like his colleague. The two were eventually able to connect and work things out. "We finally got together ... and we shed a lot of tears over the phone," Gumbel said. The two then appeared together on "Today" to publicly reconcile after the incident.

Severe backlash from NFL and NBA commissioners

Throughout Bryant Gumbel's long and respected career, he has never shied away from controversy regardless of the consequences. Former commissioners of the NBA and NFL, David Stern and Paul Tagliabue, respectively, are two people firmly established in the sports industry who were especially angered by Gumbel's comments.

On his show, "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," he not only called Stern egocentric but also said (via Awful Announcing), "[He] has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys." In response, the commissioner told Nunyo Demasio in a podcast interview, "My reaction was that Bryant Gumbel is an idiot and that I considered it a badge of honor. He was repeating something that the players' representatives had said in the middle of a lockout. He was just regurgitating something." Stern also added, "I have no respect for him, so that didn't upset me at all."

Gumbel also sparked controversy when he not only insinuated that the NFL owners were too greedy but also called the Players Association executive director, Gene Upshaw, a leashed pet. Afterward, outgoing commissioner, Tagliabue, told reporters (via USA Today) that Gumbel's comments "are about as uninformed as anything I've read or heard in a long, long time, and quite inexcusable because they are subjects about which you can and should be better informed." Even though he was not fired from the NFL Network at the time for his comments, Gumbel resigned just a couple years later in 2008.

Controversy for comments on the Winter Olympics

In 2006, Bryant Gumbel sparked the ire of both athletes and fans of the Winter Olympics for a rant he made on his show "Real Sports." Among the harsh criticism, some of the most controversial statements were when he said, "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." Gumbel also added, "Face it these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February."

Understandably, those who participated in or were deeply involved in the athletic event did not appreciate his negative comments. In a public rebuttal of the host's comments, senior writer Gene Wojciechowski at ESPN argued that it is unfair to criticize the winter sports for their lack of Black athletes, just like it is not right to judge the NBA over the minimal amount of white athletes. Plus, the writer went on to comment on how Gumbel had no similar criticism of golf, a sport he loves, so it seemed like he was diminishing the great achievements of talented athletes simply because he personally does not enjoy watching the events.

Bryant Gumbel was open to hosting a history or cooking show

After so many years with successful shows like "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" and "Today," it is not surprising that the renowned TV host considered branching out further during his long career. As a self-proclaimed history buff, the journalist admitted that he wanted to do a history show at one point, and he was also open to the possibility of featuring on a cooking show as well.

When Gumbel was no longer working on "Today" or on CBS' "The Early Show," he was interviewed by ABC News and said, "I think there's a number of opportunities out there. I'm still going to do television. I'm just not going to do morning television. I would like to do some things that satisfy interests, private interests." On the other hand, the award-winning host also admitted he liked how "Real Sports" was doing so well that he no longer needed to work five days a week and planned to never do so again.

He discovered his fascinating ancestry on Finding Your Roots

When Bryant Gumbel was on an episode of "Finding Your Roots," he ended up with results that were shocking in more ways than one. First off, the famous host happened to be a rare example of having DNA test results that matched perfectly with the written records of his ancestors. Through the research carried out on the show, the experts were able to determine that his great-grandfather's ancestors were from a Jewish community in Germany, and his genetic results backed that up by showing 7.1% Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

Gumbel was possibly even more stunned to discover that another ancestor willingly fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War as a manumitted former enslaved person. He volunteered for the 1st Native Guards along with 1,500 other free Black men. This other great grandfather switched sides the first chance he got and then joined the Union forces, before serving as a police officer during Reconstruction.

He opened up about his lung cancer diagnosis

In 2009, Bryant Gumbel made a shocking admission to co-host Kelly Ripa that he had just undergone chest surgery for lung cancer, only two months prior to his guest appearance on "Live! with Regis and Kelly." During the show, he explained, "They took a malignant tumor, and they took part of my lung, and they took some other goodies. And the pathology on most of the stuff had been benign, but enough aggressive cells had escaped the tumor that it warranted some treatment, and I went through that and it's done now."

Gumbel had not planned on announcing such serious news in that manner, but when he had to tell Ripa that he could not participate in a little physical fun with Julianne Hough of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," he felt the need to explain why. The guest host added, "It's nothing to run from, it's just that I've not made it public."

A year later, Gumbel confirmed that he was healthy and doing well. When asked by People to give an update on his condition, he said, "Doctors tell me I'm free and clear, so I hope for better times." While the diagnosis was certainly a relief, the entire episode was also proof of how badly some past decisions can impact health later in life, because he previously confessed to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for ten years back in the 1970s.

His older brother is a sportscaster too

Sportscasting became a major part of not just Bryant Gumbel's life, but also of his brother, Greg. However, unlike his younger sibling, Greg has stuck with the more lighthearted type of journalism throughout his entire career. For over thirty years, he covered the NFL for CBS, as well as serving as the host of March Madness for 25 years in a row for the network.

While Greg has preferred to stick with his roots, he believed that not doing so had a slightly negative effect on Bryant. The elder Gumbel told the Los Angeles Times, "He changed when he switched from sports to news. Now he takes everything so seriously." This has led to a clear distinction between the two, according to Greg, for he added, "We're very different. For one thing, he invites more controversy than I do. And he's a lot more introverted than I am. I'm more outgoing and fun-loving."

He had a nasty divorce

By 1998, Bryant Gumbel's relationship with his wife, June, had deteriorated to such an extent that despite her devout Catholic faith, she decided the annulment of their marriage was not sufficient. So, after filing for permanent separation earlier in the year, June began to seriously contemplate divorce. Her chief complaint was simple; she claimed that he was a "serial adulterer," and to make matters worse, Bryant went to live with his girlfriend, Hilary Quinlan, leaving behind his family with only $250 a month to survive on (via People).

During the following divorce proceedings, Bryant seemed to have no shame, for June revealed that he had asked the judge for the right to share his home with his soon-to-be ex-wife and even bring over Quinlan as well. In response to the outrageous idea, June told the New York Post, "Could you imagine, her in my bed, her in my bathtub? My soul is in that house." After the couple's divorce was finalized in 2001, June not only got to keep the house, but she also received about half of the estimated $20 million that Bryant was worth.

Upon leaving the courtroom, Bryant was smiling and stated, "I'm just happy to have my life back," though he later addressed the concern over how the entire affair had affected his career. When interviewed by Barbara Walters, he said, "I'm sure for some women it was a very big deal. I'm sure for others it was just a passing thing. But there was no way I could change that. We live a public life, and we live a private life. And if they collide, they collide" (via The Standard-Times).