At the end of his HBO show Real Sports, Gumbel unleashed a prolonged rant about the utter unwatchability of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.
The Winter Games certainly are a worthy target. On ten-hour tape delay, NBC has been force-feeding us highlights of sports that seem concocted on Madison Avenue to sell Mountain Dew. As Gumbel took the Xtreme winter games to task, he said, So try not to laugh when someone says these are the worlds greatest athletes, despite a paucity of Blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention.
Immediately, and predictably, the bloviating bigots of the blogosphere started splattering Gumbels statement all over the web.
This was to be expected. But more striking was the reaction to Gumbel on ESPN Radios The Dan Patrick Show. Normally, in the red meat world of sports radio, Dan Patrick seems happy to be veal: no gristle or fat, morally offensive to some, but generally just plain and easily digestible. But Dan blew a gasket on the air, going after Gumbel like he was president of the Willard Scott fan club. He called for Gumbels job, saying that if Rush Limbaugh was fired from ESPN for making racially insensitive comments, a firing Dan says he opposed - then Gumbel should suffer the same fate.
Limbaugh is a gaseous hop-head who once asked, Why do all composite criminal photos look like Jesse Jackson? and telling an African-American caller to his show who somehow got through the screeners -- to Take the bone out of your nose. Gumbel hosts a critically lauded show. Limbaugh was a hired by ESPN as a gimmick by their ownership group, Disney, as part of their mission to make America stupider.
But when you actually compare their respective comments, the Dan Patrick argument not only collapses, but becomes intellectually dishonest. Limbaugh, of course, said on ESPNs NFL show that Pro-Bowl Philadelphia Eagle Donavan McNabb was overrated because of the medias social concern to see a successful Black quarterback. This was exactly the kind of ignorant garbage Disney hired him to spew. What the rat shack didnt count on was thousands of phone calls and emails demanding the fat mans Sosa-sized head.
Lets look at Gumbels comments again. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the worlds greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention. Patrick told his listening audience that Gumbel was playing the race card by claiming whites couldnt be good athletes -- when in fact Gumbel was hardly saying anything so shocking, or even that new. The fact is -- and Sports Illustrateds Rick Reilly confirmed this -- that the athletes and the audience in Torino are almost entirely white. This isnt because Black people arent comfortable in the cold, but because of access to the types of sports on display at the Winter Games.
Gumbels comments on winter sports are not different from what John McEnroe and Andre Agassi have argued about tennis. They have both said, with no backlash, that there are potentially incredible tennis players in the inner cities of the US that we will never see because of an absence of public tennis courts and basic infrastructure. Its not different from the lament of Negro League baseball players of the 1930s like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck ONeal who didnt understand how Joe Dimaggio and Dizzy Dean could be called the best baseball players when they didnt even have a chance to compete. Yet Gumbel is a target for stating the obvious. Dan Patrick wanted Rush to stay. Now he wants Gumbel to go.
The problem is not that Dan Patrick is a raving right-winger who likes to spend his weekends shooting
78 year old lawyers in the face. Its that he and ESPN are the anti-political guardians of sport. They are instinctually hostile to anyone who tries to challenge the athletic-industrial complex. ESPN Radios Mike and Mike In the Morning even have a Just Shut Up Award for any athlete who dares step outside the box.
One player said to me, The fastest way to win the Just Shut Up Award is to actually have something to say, particularly about race or [the war in] Iraq.
If we are going to have honest discussions about sport and society, we should look at the content of what Gumbel is saying. And if we are going to look racism in the face, then we cant let someone get canned for having the temerity to talk truth. Maybe if Gumbel had just shot someone in the face instead, Patrick and company would be more forgiving.
Dave Zirin's the author of "What's My Name Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States". Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com