NEW YORK (AP) — Bryant Gumbel's "Real Sports" focuses on the NCAA this week during March Madness. As is typical of the HBO newsmagazine that marks its 20th year on air, the focus won't be on jump shots or bracket busting.
Scheduled reports will discuss the lack of long-term medical care for athletes injured during college sports, and the pressure placed on students to perform or lose their scholarships. A roundtable discussion to follow will feature Kirk Schulz, chairman of the NCAA board of governors.
"We wanted to do something that is not a sycophantic look at what is going on," Gumbel said Monday. "We wanted to take a critical look at the NCAA's relationship with its athletes and the extent to which it is functioning properly."
That's typical territory for "Real Sports." Gumbel was still a "Today" show anchor when the HBO program began in 1995, airing four times a year initially. It bumped up to six and now is once a month. "Real Sports" has taken a lead in coverage of concussions in sports and won awards for stories about racism at European soccer matches, baseball recruiting in the Dominican Republic and boys forced to be camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.
February's edition had a typical mix: a David Scott report on the dangers faced by Sherpas guiding inexperienced tourists up Mount Everest, a Soledad O'Brien story on injured athletes who shift from painkillers to heroin and a Jon Frankel profile of snowboard star Amy Purdy, a double amputee.
"The mandate is pretty much the same — to tell good stories, to highlight social issues involving sports," Gumbel said. "But I think we've become better at doing it. Like anything else, you figure out how best to get to where you want to get. Our correspondents are far better."
Other broadcast outlets have followed the show's lead, like ESPN with its increased use of documentaries and Showtime's "60 Minutes Sports," said Andy Billings, sports media professor at the University of Alabama. Online sites like Deadspin or Grantland do strong investigations, but don't drive the sports media conversation the way "Real Sports" does, he said.
The January episode, with former Chicago Bears talking about the physical toll of playing in the NFL, was seen by 3.8 million people, the biggest audience the show has had in eight years.
Increased ratings come despite the oddity that "Real Sports" has no set time slot; it will premiere on a Tuesday night each month, it's just never clear which Tuesday. While HBO has raised the profile of John Oliver's weekly show by pushing out his segments online, rights clearances prevent "Real Sports" from getting the same attention.
For its anniversary year, "Real Sports" is running a comedy segment featuring Bill Maher, Oliver and others, replacing Gumbel's often attention-getting commentary that ended each episode. The commentaries were becoming difficult since he had to balance the need to make them timely while also relevant for people who watch a week later, he said.
He's come to regret eliminating the commentary and said it will return next January.
"Even my own guys on my staff, who were surprised that I did it, were quick to tell me it was a mistake," Gumbel said.
Gumbel, 66, is in the second year of a four-year contract for "Real Sports." He shuttles between homes in Florida and New York, and besides anchoring the show, does six to eight stories a year. His interviewing skills are most readily apparent when he debriefs correspondents in the studio after their stories air. When asked how long he wants to continue, he draws a comparison between a phenom pitcher and a veteran working on guile.
"The older you get, you're not as sharp as you were," he said. "You're just not. That's a plain and simple truth ... When I was younger pitcher, I'd not only throw nine innings, I'd tell you what's coming and throw it right by you. Now I know I can't go nine. I can maybe give you three innings. I can get a batter out every now and then. I'm a bit more savvy. I'm more of a pitcher than a thrower, but I'm not nearly the pitcher I used to be."
The difficulty is knowing what he'll be like at 69, when his current contract is up.
"I never want to be a burden to the staff or to the viewers," he said. "I never want to be the guy who's there because he used to be Bryant Gumbel."
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder