What in the devil did Gene Upshaw do to tick off Bryant Gumbel? If that was your first reaction upon hearing of Gumbel's surprisingly mean-spirited verbal assault on Upshaw, you are not alone. Gumbel, the host of HBO's Real Sports, unloaded on Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, with both barrels during his commentary on the most recent episode of the show.
He talked about Upshaw like a dog -- literally -- suggesting that that the former Oakland Raiders offensive lineman was the "personal pet" of outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and that Tagliabue's successor, Roger Goodell, should make sure Tagliabue tells him "where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash."
There's more, but let's stop right here for a moment. This is a case of a high-profile African-American man referring to another one in terms that aren't only derogatory but also loaded with deeper significance. When Gumbel suggests that Upshaw has allowed himself to be kept on a white man's leash, he's heading into a highly sensitive area. It's a short leap from there to "Uncle Tom" territory, an insult that has been hurled at Gumbel often enough that he ought to realize how much it hurts.
It's not that Gumbel should avoid criticizing Upshaw because they happen to have the same skin color. The only thing he owes Upshaw or any other subject of his commentaries is to be accurate. But there was no need for him to use racially charged imagery to make his point, and he's too intelligent a man to plead ignorance on that score.
Gumbel seems to be increasingly sharp-tongued lately. He ripped the Winter Olympics last February as an overrated sporting event because of its relatively narrow scope (a view that was supported in this corner), saying that we should "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." He was also dismissive of soccer during the World Cup in June, when he said that in a typical game "they score about as often as Ann Coulter makes sense." So perhaps he took a run at Upshaw to prove that he doesn't discriminate when he chooses his targets.
It's hard to figure out what's making him so cranky these days, and we hate to think that ex-NFL running back Robert Smith, who was the Minnesota Vikings player representative for part of his career, might have been on to something when he told SI.com on Tuesday that he thinks Gumbel's comments might have been calculated to attract attention to himself. "Bryant Gumbel has fallen in recent times," Smith said. "He's desperate to be a respected national voice again but the problem is that a lot of people aren't listening anymore." Smith went on to say that "part of it with Gumbel is that Gene is a much more powerful black man than he is. And he's jealous of Gene's power and position. I think Gumbel's even jealous of where his former [Today show] co-host Katie Couric is, and how she's moved on to a more powerful position and he still hasn't."
That theory isn't easily dismissed, not when Gumbel disseminates the kind of over-the-top, venomous criticism that he aimed at Upshaw. How effective Upshaw has been as head of the players' union is a debatable issue, the kind that Real Sports often tackles with thoroughness and intelligence, the kind to which Gumbel, at his best, could have brought some insight and wisdom. It's disappointing that he chose instead to go for the kind of cheap, offensive talk-show bombast that ought to be beneath him.
If Gumbel wanted people to look at him, he got his wish. But he should be careful. This time, his diatribe embarrassed himself more than his subject, and if he keeps that up, it won't be long before we deliberately look away.