HBO’s long-running program Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel takes a hard look at racial injustice in the time of COVID-19 in this week’s episode, exploring how both the ongoing protests and the pandemic are influencing the world of sports. Real Sports latest installment, described by HBO as one of the most ambitious shows in franchise history, features interviews with 35 guests from the world of sports, academics, and activism who share their views on racism in the United States. All interviews were conducted remotely by Gumbel over a two-day period last week.
Following a montage of news coverage depicting protests spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Killer Mike, an avowed cannabis advocate and one-half of hip-hop phenom Run the Jewels, says that this instance of police brutality has struck a chord with the nation unlike any before.
“What we saw and the reason Mr. Floyd’s death sparked such an issue and such uprising is because it was a public execution,” Killer Mike exclaims. “It was not an accidental death. It was an arrogant and evil public execution. It was one of the most evil acts I’ve ever seen, and it makes me disgusted and want to throw up to think about it.”
Pandemic Frames Public Reaction To Injustice
On top of the callous disregard for human life exhibited in the Floyd video, the pandemic and resulting business closures and stay-at-home orders have given the issues of police brutality and systemic racism a captive audience. The added attention has given many people the feeling that perhaps things will be different this time around and change will actually happen.
“We were in the middle of a pandemic,” explains Candace Parker, a sports broadcaster and forward with the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks. “Sometimes it’s better not to have so many distractions on hand. And I do believe that having that stillness, having that ability to have nothing else to do but to focus on what’s on the news. I mean, it forced people to look themselves in the mirror and figure out are you on the right side of history, or are you on the wrong?”
In addition to a healthy dose of self-reflection, achieving racial harmony in the United States is also going to depend on white people being willing to have difficult conversations about where we are and how we got here, according to Doc Rivers, the head coach of the L.A. Clippers.
“I don’t think America understands what we go through on a daily basis,” Rivers says. “We need to teach white America exactly what slavery was and what it did. We live in a country of slavery, and yet we don’t talk about it. It makes us uncomfortable.”
With more Americans beginning to acknowledge the existence of white privilege in our society, many have recognized it on full display not only in the killing of Floyd but in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, says noted civil rights activist and professor Maya Wiley.
“I think the difference here is really the degree to which people who are white understand better now the depth of the problem,” she explains. “The coronavirus crisis showed them visually and viscerally that the people on the front line are largely black and Latino, in that fight and losing their lives. And they’re the same people losing their lives to police violence.”
Will It Be Different This Time Around?
Chris Conley, a wide receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars, agrees, saying that America’s social climate feels more receptive to change now than it did when Colin Kaepernick and fellow pro football players protested police brutality by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games.
“We had an opportunity in 2016 and 2017. You had a lot of people who voiced their opinions and were met with some hostility and ultimately missed the mark,” Conley remembers. “And now, in this time of coronavirus, [we] had everyone sitting down and watching and listening. This was a time where we said we’re not going to miss this opportunity. We’re going to make sure that we’re heard.”
Killer Mike maintains that change is imperative and that if it doesn’t come now, it has to come soon.
“I have to believe positive change is in the offing because I know the alternative potentially rests in me and my anger,” he says prophetically. “The anger I felt in 1992. The anger my father felt in 1972. The anger that his father felt in 1952. At some point, we’re going to have to have a reckoning with one another, the black society and the white society. We must figure this out together, or perish together.”
Other guests on this week’s special edition of Real Sports, which also takes a look at the prospects for the return of pro and collegiate sports in 2020, include NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty, Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, former NBA player and activist Stephen Jackson, NHL star P.K. Subban, tennis icon Billie Jean King, Penn State coach James Franklin, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch, New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, and Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist, among others.
The episode premiered on HBO on Tuesday, June 23 and is also available through the streaming platforms HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max.