Bob Costas seemed to be speaking truth to power in a recent segment on ESPN’s Outside The Lines, detailing a lengthy backstory about power and influence and the NFL’s relationship with its broadcast partners. It was classic Costas: smooth, controlled, authoritative—all the trustworthy qualities that make him one of sports broadcasting’s most famous personalities. There was a veneer of candor to much of what Costas had to say; he was letting us peek behind the curtain, but only to a point. He freely discussed his ambivalence about whether it was wise to have talked to OTL in the first place, and he likewise was frank about how OTL’s report might be received. The only subject Costas never quite reconciled was Bob Costas.
The OTL piece, which was accompanied by a written story from reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada, drills down on why NBC removed Costas from last year’s broadcast of Super Bowl 52, and Costas’s eventual departure from NBC, where he worked from 1979 until last month. In Costas’s telling, there had been a gathering storm because of his repeated willingness to describe football as a danger to players’ brain health—a stance that rankled the NFL and eventually nuked the support his superiors at NBC had for him. In the segment, Costas works diligently to portray himself as a rabble-rouser who tilted at the windmills of NFL hegemony, but his self-characterization soon lurches into self-aggrandizement. “The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL’s tune,” Costas tells Fainaru-Wada. “It’s just kind of the way it goes. Everyone walks on eggshells around the NFL.” Left unsaid is why Costas stayed on for as long as he did as the public face of one of the NFL’s biggest and most lucrative promotional partnerships.
Fans of the NFL and the reporters who cover it (ahem) all have varying degrees of cognitive dissonance about the sport of football. But NBC isn’t some independent entity watching or chronicling the NFL from a passionate perch or dispassionate distance. It pays billions of dollars to provide a platform that showcases the league. It then sells ads against those broadcasts to make billions of dollars for itself.* A distinction can be drawn between the work of the news divisions at an NFL network partner like, say, ESPN, which has done adversarial journalism in addition to dealing with the league’s interference into its operations, as Fainaru-Wada carefully explains. But Costas’s presence as a game host made him central to the production.** His intermittent on-air critiques of the NFL were instantly undone every time he threw it back to Al and Cris for the start of the second half. And it ain’t like Costas is giving back the gobs of money he made helping the NFL sling its product.
Consider this timeline. In December 2015, Costas wanted to discuss the recently released film Concussion during one of his Sunday Night Football halftime essays, only to be told he couldn’t after he submitted his words to a pair of NBC Sports executives for advance approval. “We’re in negotiations with the NFL for Thursday Night Football,” was the response. “It was at that point that I realized that this was an untenable situation for me,” Costas tells Fainaru-Wada. “I knew my days there were numbered.”
The final straw didn’t come until November 2017—nearly two years later—when Costas publicly discussed brain trauma and football on three separate occasions during the span of a week. First, NBC issued a comment to the New York Daily News distancing itself from Costas’s remarks, and before long the network chose to remove him from its Super Bowl telecast. “Costas insists that rather than being upset or feeling punished,” Fainaru-Wada writes, “he felt relief.” And why wouldn’t he have felt that way? As Fainaru-Wada points out, Costas had already triggered an option in his contract that made the 2016 season his last, with Super Bowl 52 as his final NFL telecast. He was 65 years old by then. He got to launder his guilt without risking anything beyond that one game.
Costas says he proposed an interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who declined. This caused Costas to naively wonder about the NFL’s “obligation” to NBC. Costas is clearly aware that NBC needs the NFL—“Look, the NFL isn’t just the most important sports property, it’s the single-most important property in all of American television. And it isn’t even close,” he tells Fainaru-Wada—but he seems to be oblivious about the NFL not needing NBC at all.
His apparent qualms go even further back: Costas tells Fainaru-Wada he once asked to be taken off NBC’s NFL telecasts, citing “[t]he sheer violence of the game, and then the celebration of that violence, even before CTE became a specific issue ... I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. That felt stupid to me.” This was in 1993! Yet when NBC bought the rights to Sunday Night Football in 2005, Costas agreed to return as host “out of loyalty” to then-NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, “as kind of a good soldier.” This was all it took to make Costas comfortable with feeling what he once described as stupid, apparently.
It’s hard not to be reminded of an anecdote about Costas, shared on Deadspin in 2011 by no less than Robert Lipsyte:
Costas says he is not out to throw bombs (like you bloggers out there) but to keep the mainstream accountable. But how can you do that, I say, well after the fact and with infrequent essays on steroids, concussions, and TD dances? But coming from Costas, he says, those essays and opinion pieces have far more impact than they do coming from the distant outsider voices online. Coming from Costas, I reply, the audience is comforted that no matter how bad the news, all is right in our sweaty sanctuaries.
In his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, Lipsyte writes, “No one has ever walked so gracefully the line between journalist and shill as Costas.” Lipsyte would later declare his “respect” for Costas’s “integrity and authenticity—I do believe he is the humane, measured insider/traditionalist he seems to be.” At the same time, Lipsyte expressed “a feeling of poignancy for his thin skin and need to be admired.” Bob Costas let us peek behind the curtain, but he just unwittingly gave us a glimpse of exactly how deep that need goes.
** This post was updated to include a reference to the news divisions of NFL network partners.