What may have been lost amid all of the politics news this weekend was a fascinating ESPN Outside the Lines report from Mark Fainaru-Wada about why Bob Costas did not host NBC Sports’ coverage of Super Bowl LI.
“I remember being told that now I can no longer host the Super Bowl,” Costas told ESPN. “I think the words were, ‘You’ve crossed the line’ and my thought was, ‘What line have I crossed?’ ”
Costas had been the face of NBC Sports for decades, fronting the network’s coverage of the NFL, the Olympics, the Triple Crown, MLB and the NBA on NBC, when the network had rights to the leagues back in the 90’s.
Costas,’ whose “mutually agreeable” exit from the network was first reported last month, was never afraid to speak his mind during his nearly 40-year career at NBC Sports. He used halftime during NBC’s Sunday Night Football to advocate on hot button issues, including gun control, the national anthem controversy and the Washington Redskins’ name.
With his 28 Emmys and eight National Sportscaster of the Year awards, Costas had become the most-respected broadcaster of his generation — a kind of Walter Cronkite for sports. He believed it was his responsibility to address uncomfortable truths, or “elephants in the room,” as he often called them.
But the foremost reason Costas was taken off the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast, according to him anyway, was his most recent remarks on the links between brain damage and football.
Why take Costas off of this particular Super Bowl? After all, he reminded ESPN that he has been speaking out on this particular subject for a while.
For instance, in 2015, Costas says that his bosses rejected an essay he wrote about the movie Concussion and the link between brain damage and football. He wanted to give the essay on air during halftime. He said he “proposed a very carefully crafted halftime essay that would give the NFL full credit for the steps it had taken, perhaps belatedly, but the steps that it had taken to try to cope with the crisis,” But he says he was told: “We’re in negotiations with the NFL for Thursday Night Football.”
Fast forward to November 2017: “I have been making the same points for several years, often on NBC,” Costas said at a panel discussion at the University of Maryland. “I have addressed the issue of football and its undeniable connection to brain trauma many times. Why? Because the evidence is overwhelming and the effects are often devastating. It’s the elephant in the stadium at every game whether others choose to acknowledge it or not.”
Costas agreed to appear on Michael Smerconish‘s CNN program not long after those 2017 comments went viral, and tried to clarify what he meant. According to Costas, not long after that CNN appearance, he heard from NBC Sports ep Sam Flood and then-NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus (who now also runs NBC, MSNBC and CNBC), who expressed their displeasure, and eventually took Costas off of the Super Bowl broadcast.
Costas was also not shy when talking about the NFL’s influence on TV networks, which both carry games and cover the league. “The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL”s tune,” he told ESPN. “It’s just kind of the way it goes. Everyone walks on eggshells around the NFL.”
Fainaru-Wada made sure to note that Costas repeatedly said he didn’t harbor ill will toward NBC.
For the better part of a year, during dozens of conversations with [ESPN’s] Outside the Lines – short ones, long ones, in person, on the phone – Costas made a point of noting how, in spite of everything he was saying, he had no issues with anyone at NBC.
An NBC Sports spokesperson told ESPN in a statement that it has historically given its on-air talent the right to give their opinions, “and Bob has benefited most from this policy. We’re very disappointed … he has chosen to mischaracterize and share these private interactions.”
Costas has left NBC Sports, but he is not retiring. He continues to do play-by-play for MLB Network telecast, and has expressed interest in hosting a show, which he has done in the past.
Costas is still considered one of the elite interviewers in TV journalism.
“From my view, the more prominent you are and the more willing you are to be thoughtfully and reasonably critical or aware — not even necessarily critical — acknowledge the elephants in the room, acknowledge the issues, the more you’re willing to do that, the most authentic the whole presentation is,” said Costas.