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HBO’s ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ pulls planned report on trans student athletes

HBO promoted a report about transgender athletes. But why was the segment suddenly dropped from the show?

June Eastwood.
HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

UPDATE: Ben Koo of Awful Announcing interviewed me for this report: How and why HBO Real Sports pulled a segment on transgender student athletes. He obtained this statement from HBO, apparently referring to trans runner June Eastwood:

“REAL SPORTS explores stories from across the world of sports and at its core examines culture, ethics and the human experience. Out of respect for concerns raised by an athlete whose voice was central to a segment planned for broadcast, we decided to remove the interview. As a result of this, the segment was postponed.”

And Washington’s LGBT magazine MetroWeekly has another update on when the segment might air:

“The segment was scheduled to air last Tuesday, but an HBO spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman newspaper that the story was no longer scheduled to run this month, as ‘there are revisions that need to be made.’ The spokesperson did not share a new run date, and the Real Sports website contains no mention of the story.”

ORIGINAL REPORT: HBO pulled a heavily-promoted report from its “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” program on the debate over transgender student athletes Monday evening, fewer than 30 hours before its planned debut. No official explanation was given; a spokesperson had no comment.

A source inside the HBO show, which with this season celebrates its 25th anniversary, told me late Monday that the segment had been sent back for “re-editing.” They said they didn’t know why, or for how long, but I do have a suspicion a leading LGBTQ advocacy group had a hand in this. More about that shortly.

How This Unfolded: Questions for A ‘Real Sports’ Correspondent

On Monday, at HBO’s invitation, I viewed what I was told was the final version of the report, I read a transcript of that report, and I interviewed the reporter of the story, veteran correspondent Bernard “Bernie” Goldberg.

The decision to drop this segment came just three hours after my conversation with Goldberg, during which I raised serious questions:

  • Asking leading questions — A trailblazing transgender athlete who was interviewed by Goldberg. NCAA Division I champion runner June Eastwood. said that he pressured her to provide answers that fit a predetermined narrative, such as the tired transgender trope of being “trapped in the wrong body:”

“...She realized at a very young age that she wasn’t like the other boys … that she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body…” — Bernie Goldberg

Eastwood told me she complained about it to producer Jake Rosenwasser following the interview. She said Rosenwasser assured her that her words would not be twisted in the editing of the final report. Rosenwasser did not respond to my requests for comment as of press time. If you’re interested in learning more: Toronto-based educator and public speaker Talia C. Johnson has an excellent essay on why it’s important to avoid that trope.

  • Who Goldberg Interviewed — The only expert given a voice in this report was Dr, Emma Hilton, a British biologist who has no experience in sports science, but who is a prominent activist for the campaign to ban trans women from competing in women’s sports. Not one scientist who supports inclusion, nor was anyone with solid experience in sports science heard from.
  • Deadnaming — Goldberg revealed the name Eastwood had since birth to viewers in the report, and not just once, but twice; she said she was pressured to provide consent for this. Using a trans person’s birth name is “a verbally violent offense that attempts to invalidate a person’s authentic gender identity,” I once wrote in The Advocate. If you’d like to know more, read how Laverne Cox explained it in the Washington Post.

“The deadnaming and the framing of the piece are horrendous,” Eastwood told me in an email, after she read a transcript of Goldberg’s report. “Not happy at all — feels very leading and gives transphobes more validity than they deserve. Not very nuanced if you ask me — I feel kinda sick to be honest.”

‘Real Sports’ Correspondent Bernie Goldberg Responds

Bernard Goldberg
HBO

“First of all, this is the first I’m hearing of it,” Goldberg said of Eastwood’s complaint to his producer. “Second of all, she has no legitimate basis for saying that. A lot of people don’t understand what journalism is. They just don’t get it. They think that we’re supposed to toss softballs to them so they can hit it out of the park. I asked her questions that were easy. And I then asked her questions that the other side would want to know the answers to. I did the same with Kate Hall, the sprinter in Connecticut, who complained about having to run against transgender girls.” Hall did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Goldberg then returned to his point about journalism. Having worked at CBS for 28 years and Fox News for a decade before joining HBO, he certainly should know.

“People don’t understand what journalism is. They should try to understand that we’re not there to not only present their point of view, which we do, but to also challenge them regarding the other person, the other side’s point of view.”

As for Dr. Hilton. Goldberg said, “The producer found her,” meaning Rosenwasser. He told me they selected her because of her science background.

“She’s a biologist who has studied and analyzed 12 different studies on the matter. And she came to certain conclusions. I think that’s perfectly legitimate, however, she feels about transgender people,” Goldberg said, adding, “By the way, she says she has no problem with transgender people.”

In the original version of his story I had seen, I noted Goldberg himself raised the question of why Hilton is even embroiled in the inclusion debate, since she is not an expert on sports science.

“I did ask,” he told me. “I said, ‘If you’re a scientist, why is it so important to you?’ Because she’s also a feminist, a women’s rights activist.”

But Hilton, I pointed out, does not believe trans women are women and opposes their right to compete with other women, and that he relied upon her as providing “the scientist” perspective without any of the many experts who hold a contrary view. My request for a comment from Dr. Hilton was not answered by press time.

I asked Goldberg, being a fellow sports journalist, whether he accepted that sports is all about advantage, and celebrates advantage. In the part of the ‘Real Sports’ show where Gumbel debriefs the correspondent following their report, Goldberg said Gumbel asked about that very thing during their taping.

“I say, ‘You’re absolutely right, Bryant. There are advantages in training, in ability and nutrition. One athlete has an advantage over another athlete all the time. The question is, is being a transgender athlete different, different from all those other advantages? That’s the question.’”

“That Question Is Insane... Screw that!”

My interview with Goldberg ended on a contentious note, when I asked him about twice deadnaming Eastwood.

“You know, this is insane,” Goldberg said. “So, that question is insane.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Tell me why it’s insane. Tell me why.”

“As a journalist, you should really question why you’re asking something like that,” Goldberg explained. “I referred to her as June Eastwood, who used to be [X] Eastwood. That is absolutely legitimate. And anybody who doesn’t think so, they won’t be happy with the piece. Activists will not be happy with the piece. And frankly, I don’t give a damn if activists are happy with the piece.”

Goldberg was yelling at me through the phone. I noted that he was obviously upset and asked him why.

“The reason I’m upset? Yeah: Because I am tired of activists wanting their way. Screw that. If I can’t say that June Eastwood used to be [X] Eastwood, what in the whole world is that? Who says? Because transgender people say that’s the rule? No! That’s not the rule. That’s your rule, maybe. It’s not my rule,”

I concluded by asking Goldberg if he was aware of GLAAD, which has a media guide offering advice to journalists who interview the trans community; one suggestion is to avoid deadnaming.

“I know about GLAAD,” he said. “Advocates, I don’t care. Don’t you understand that they’re an activist group and I’m a journalist? If you don’t get that, I’m not sure what kind of sports journalist you are.”

LGBTQ Advocates React: “Inaccurate, Irresponsible, Exploitive”

Following my interview, I did what journalists do: I sought reaction. Members of leading LGBTQ advocate organizations who viewed the transcript, including GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union and others, all reacted with dismay.

“Sports must be an inclusive space for everyone,” said HRC President Alphonso David in a statement. “Transgender athletes have every right to play sports and participate in athletic activities in accordance with their gender identity, and they should be treated with respect both on and off the field. Using an incorrect name and pronouns to refer to a trans or non-binary person should never be tolerated.”

Chase Strangio ACLU
ACLU Attorney Chase Strangio
Grinnell College

Chase Strangio, an attorney with the ACLU who happens to be a trans man, said that “Real Sports” failed to get its fact right, on Title IX and on one of his many cases: the fight for trans student athletes in Idaho. “They didn’t include Lindsey Hecox, who is the plaintiff in the Idaho litigation, and they fail to mention that court preliminarily enjoined HB500, Idaho’s law [banning trans student athletes from competing]. So, you have the representative who introduced the law getting substantial airtime without filling in the story to note that a court found that the law likely violates the Constitution,” he said.

Strangio, who agreed to be interviewed by “Real Sports,” also points to the fact the ACLU offered producers an expert scientist, Dr. Joshua D. Safer, but they declined. What did the producers want? A photograph of Strangio when he presented as a girl and played sports.

“I think that immediately told me everything I need to know,” Strangio said, “in addition to the ways in which the questions were framed,” which he said “presumes that women and girls who are transgender aren’t women and girls.”

“So they are invested in telling the ‘Before and After’ story of trans experience, which is always about perpetuating the idea that we are not who we say we are. And so just the fact that that’s how they enter this conversation shows how deeply invested they are in undermining our voices, which again, is reinforced by the fact that they didn’t include the voices that really needed to be included.”

All of the people interviewed for Goldberg’s story are white, Strangio noted, and yet other than Eastwood, all of the trans women being talked about are Black: recently graduated high school athletes Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller of Connecticut, and NCAA champion CeCé Telfer of New Hampshire.

Terry Miller, left, and Andraya Yearwood
Terry Miller, left, and Andraya Yearwood
“Changing the Game”

“So you have all of these white people speaking about black women and none of the black women get to speak for themselves,” Strangio said.

“Three Black trans women who are student athletes were discussed extensively, and yet not allowed to speak for themselves,” added Nick Adams, also a trans man, and GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation. “We know transgender and cisgender student athletes are participating together without incident in school districts around the country, all for the same reasons — camaraderie, teamwork, self-discipline, and health. Their stories deserve to be told.”

When GLAAD’S Nick Adams Speaks, Hollywood Listens

“This pulled segment from HBO’s ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ inaccurately and irresponsibly exploited the stories of transgender student athletes during a cultural moment when trans students are subjected to increasingly hostile attacks from the federal government and in state legislatures around the country,” said Adams in his statement to Outsports. “In a story that required the voices of trans people and experts who specialize in the issue of trans inclusion in sports, the producers chose to interview anti-trans activists who are known for spreading misinformation and junk science.”

And here is the part of Adams’ statement which I believe can be construed as the real reason the Real Sports producers set aside Goldberg’s report:

“HBO made the responsible decision to refrain from airing the segment,” Adams wrote, suddenly praising the company. That was unexpected; I had thought the organization was going to keep bad-mouthing HBO as it honored my request for a comment. Instead, Adams revealed, with his next sentence, that after I reached out for comment, GLAAD had likely engaged with HBO in behind the scenes negotiations, with the end result being Goldberg’s piece going on a shelf, instead of on the air.

“GLAAD, along with other organizations, have asked to speak with HBO and Real Sports about the facts around trans students participating in sports while they consider future coverage of this issue,” concluded Adams. If true, it fits a pattern; GLAAD typically works with huge entertainment companies to “accelerate acceptance,” rather than point fingers.

One of the advocates GLAAD mentions in its statement to Outsports is Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally who identifies as a queer femme-inist organizer. GLAAD provided a statement from Lieberman, which I’ve excerpted:

“At a time when trans athletes are under vicious attack around the world, the media must stop replicating dangerous, damaging portrayals of trans athletes. Powerful sports stories are compelling when they unite athletes and fans across ideological divides, but instead this segment will only contribute to further harassment and targeting of trans athletes.”

“Hold Her Ammunition”

When I presented Goldberg with Eastwood’s complaints, he told me: “Maybe she should hold her ammunition until she sees the piece and then decide if she’s happy or not.”

As of press time, there is no word on when HBO will air his segment, if at all.

Based on what I’ve seen and what Eastwood and Strangio told me, the team at “Real Sports” has a lot of work to do before they can present a truly fair and balanced report. And based on my 30+ years in TV journalism, all of that cannot be solved in the edit room.