He has been slammed for defending and criticizing African American sports personalities. He has been chastised for being too outspoken and too reticent. Television journalist Bryant Gumbel, spent 15 years (1982-97) as the cohost of NBC’s “Today” show, but his today centers around sports.

    Since 1995, he has been the host of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” The Emmy-winning machine continues to set the pace in intelligent and enlightening sports talk and features.

     The 61 year-old Gumbel is an unabashed lover of golf. Following his treatment for lung cancer in 2009, he publicly hoped that doctors would give him “the green light” to return to the links. Since bursting onto the national scene in 1975, Gumbel has been a lightning rod, yet remains an intensely private man, eschewing personal interviews and the showbiz spotlight.

     Much of the criticism that Gumbel has engendered is due to his utter fearlessness. In August of 2006, Gumbel, directing his comments to new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, offered these stinging words about then-NFL Players Union president Gene Upshaw, who passed away in 2008.

     “Before he cleans out his office, have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw’s leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch.”

     Gumbel stands by his words. “I was not out to get (Upshaw). There was no sabotage here. You would have been shocked at the number of calls of support I got from players. They thanked me. The problems of the NFL Players’ Association were hidden. Now, they are on the front burner.”

     Gumbel’s conservative look and professorial nature belie the racial activist within. He has been honored by the United Negro College Fund, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and the African-American Institute.

     “Race comes up a lot and money exacerbates things,” says Gumbel, who was born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago and graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, ME. “People see a black athlete making a lot of money and say, ‘I’m making $25.00 an hour at the plant. I don’t want to hear you bitch.’ The divide has grown.”

     Gumbel further expounds on the fickle nature of sports media. “We complain about guys giving cookie cutter answers to questions, and then there is outrage when someone speaks his mind. Vijay Singh took a lot of heat when (in 2003) he said that Annika Sorenstam should have to qualify to play in men’s competitions. A guy like Derek Jeter says nothing, so we’ll never know how he feels.”

     While Gumbel recognizes that PGA superstar Tiger Woods is available to the media, he wishes that the substance of this availability would be a bit more substantial. “I do find it sad that in an era where athletes are our most recognizable and admired role models, we come upon a presidential election and we have no idea whom they support.”

     Gumbel stands, all too often alone, as an example of defiant, yet refined, passion. He angers a lot of people and is conversely riled by the unaware. 

     He states, “Ignorance in action gets me angry. Talk radio is the worst thing to happen to sports. I get aggravated at people who use horrible grammar and terrible English. They seem proud of not knowing what a word means. There is an inherent ignorance in their approach. It’s all about being louder than the next guy. I was raised by a conservative dad (the late Richard Gumbel). He always said that the loudest guy is the weakest guy.”

     Fatherly influence is an obvious key in shaping Gumbel. He explains, “People who know me know that I rarely talk about what I do. I was raised that way. My dad was a judge. He was smarter that I am and a better person than I am. I’m just a guy on TV. I have friends who enjoy the limelight, but I’d rather play golf every day.”

Syndicated columnist John Molori writes for numerous publications and websites. Email John at MoloriMedia@aol.com.