The 40-year marriage between Bob Costas and NBC Sports was about as good as it gets. Costas elevated the airwaves. Erudite and eloquent, he was a thinking man for the thoughtful fan. Everything was contextual. He understood our national obsession could be an ugly beast. He knew how to put sports in its place.
It’s what ended the marriage.
“You’ve crossed the line,” is what his company told him.
He had a conscience, and gave it voice. On his “misgivings about football.” On the sport being “unacceptably brutal.” About how it “destroys” some players’ brains.
This might be a good spot to mention NBC Sports has a $9 billion contract with the NFL, and that a continued good partnership is far more essential to the network than it is to the league.
This also merits emphasis: Costas was unequivocally (and unapologetically) right, of course. The forthrightness to take on the NFL, in his position, only gilds Costas’ reputation for integrity. He doesn’t need the 28 Emmys or eight National Sportscaster of the Year trophies or hosting the Olympics 11 times. The way he went out speaks all that needs be said.
Costas, 66, has revealed for the first time what caused NBC to yank him off its Super Bowl broadcast one year ago, precipitating his mutually agreed-upon parting with the network. He would need to tone down the social commentary that intruded like a buzzkill on the celebration of football. He said no.
The revelation is told in an impeccably reported story by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada that also was an “Outside The Lines” report and an “E:60” episode that first aired Sunday.
(It is a fitting coincidence that HBO’s documentary, “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti,” premieres Tuesday night — fitting in that the last of the many lives of the Dolphins’ Hall of Fame linebacker is that of a 77-year-old man suffering severe neurological issues at least partly from a football life. It was the part of the game Costas declined to ignore, the part that made him fall out of love with the sport).
It strikes us as a microcosm of how much of America has evolved in its opinion of the NFL, as more is learned about the toll of repeated concussions and about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain condition linked to repeated blows to the head.
It’s strange, though. We might cringe as we cheer. But we don’t stop watching. We might decide we better encourage our children to play a different sport. But there we are on Sundays, tuning in again, playing fantasy football, placing bets. We might feel badly for Buoniconti and all the others like him, but we rationalize they were well paid for doing what they loved.
Except that the players from generations ago didn’t know of the dangers beyond an occasional busted knee. The dangers that lurked in the brain, swallowing it by degrees. Cigarettes didn’t have a warning label until 1965. Football finally has one now, in effect. It is evident in the millions the NFL has paid to settle suits brought by former players in the throes of CTE. It is evident in the in-game attention paid now to concussions, and in rules changes designed with safety in mind. It is evident in the increasing numbers of players retiring early — getting out with their health.
Meanwhile the straddling NFL plays both sides. It strives to make the game safer for its own long-term preservation, while at the same time celebrating its tough-guy essence.
Did you see that NFL Super Bowl commercial marking the league’s coming 100th season? It was done with humor, played for laughs, but it was unabashedly — almost jarringly — a celebration of the sport’s violence as a gala gathering of former greats erupted into a brawl when someone shouted “Fumble!” and bodies flew.
Our collective appetite for the game is great enough to take the punches. To weather storms like domestic abuse by players, social protest involving anthem kneeling and the fundamental fact the sport is bad for one’s health.
Just this past weekend came the debut of the Alliance of American Football, a new professional spring league backed by CBS Sports. Buoyed by curiosity, the first two games Saturday averaged more viewers nationally than a concurrent Houston-Oklahoma City NBA game starring James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
A second NFL alternative league, the reborn XFL, is scheduled to start next year.
Yes, our collective appetite for the game seems not much of a moral dilemma for most of us. We seem aggressively undeterred by what ails so many former players and by what ultimately fashioned one broadcasting great’s exit from NBC Sports after 40 years.
It is all the more reason to appreciate Bob Costas upon an uncommonly noble farewell.