A year after Bob Costas was conspicuous by his absence from NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII, the longtime face of the network’s sports telecasts explained that he was told “you’ve crossed the line” with commentary about the NFL.
“I remember being told that now I can no longer host the Super Bowl,” Costas, who parted amicably with the network after 40 years, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” “I think the words were, ‘You’ve crossed the line’ and my thought was, ‘What line have I crossed?’ ”
It’s a line that isn’t clearly defined, but the NFL is a ratings behemoth and likes to refer to networks as “broadcast partners.” Over the last few years, Costas had moved from being the genial host of the network’s biggest sports event to someone who offered brief snippets of commentary and he quickly was subjected to an unaccustomed barrage of criticism for speaking up about long-term cognitive issues that can develop after playing football, gun control, the national anthem controversy and the Redskins’ name. He had referred to football as “unacceptably brutal” and a sport that “destroys people’s brains,” likening it to “Russian roulette.” The reality, he said in a 2017 Shirley Povich Symposium at the University of Maryland, “is that this sport destroys people’s brains.”
What led to the Super Bowl LII moment was an awareness of the violence and danger of football that Costas traces back to covering the sport in the 1990s. He signed on for “Sunday Night Football” when NBC launched it to be “a good soldier.” He was able to contribute halftime essays, most of which dealt with the game. But “evidence is evidence and it’s part of your job to see what’s out there in front of you,” he told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada.
In 2015, for instance, 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.” It was a commentary that he had “purposely toned down.” “I remember the reaction” when presented with it about three days ahead of time “almost verbatim. They said This is a very well-written piece. Wouldn’t change a comma. We can’t air it. We’re in negotiations with the NFL for ‘Thursday Night Football.’ ”
At that point, he said he realized “that this was an untenable situation for me. Did it make me think that the people for whom I worked and with whom I worked were not good people, not talented people, not people I liked, appreciated and respected? No. But they had different concerns than I had. 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.”
His commentary continued, but it became more problematic in a polarized society and because of the relationship between the NFL and networks. “It’s possible to say that football is an exciting sport and people are connected to it for various reasons, but there are these undeniable problems.”
The NFL is a billion-dollar investment for networks and “all of them dance to the NFL’s tune. Everyone walks on eggshells around the NFL,” he said. Costas continued to speak about football in the fall preceding Super Bowl LII, with the network saying that his “opinions are his own and do not represent those of the NBC Sports Group.”
Said Costas: “So I guess NBC is not sure whether there is a connection between football and brain trauma. And I imagine the next press release is: It’s still open to question whether or not the earth is round or flat. OK. Sure.”
A CNN interview with Michael Smerconish led to him hearing from his bosses because “apparently I was viewed – they thought I was viewed – as some sort of enemy of football. … I remember reminding them of things I had done going back to the ’90s (on steroids in baseball), what credibility I would have to comment about these things and their reaction to that was ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ But this puts us in a position that’s untenable for us, so you can’t do the Super Bowl.”
NBC told ESPN in a statement that it has historically given commentators latitude to express opinions “and Bob has benefited most from this policy. We’re very disappointed … he has chosen to mischaracterize and share these private interactions.”
Costas offered a compromise, a pregame interview with Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We can both look good. It won’t look like you tossed me off, which is the way some people interpreted it – not me,” he said. “I was saying to them, ‘Here is a thoughtful way out’ and they made the request to Goodell directly. And Goodell declined.”
Asked what it says that the NFL wouldn’t make the commissioner available to a network that pays it billions, Costas responded, “It tells you who calls the shots. It’s an unusual relationship when you talk about broadcast sports. It’s one of the few relationships I can think of where the buyer must continually flatter the seller. We deliver the billion dollars in a Brink’s armored truck, but we hope we didn’t offend you by sending it over in the incorrect denominations and if we did, we’ll immediately correct that oversight and we’ll come over and wash your car as well. That’s not unique to NBC. That’s the way this thing works.”
Costas was taken from the lineup for the Super Bowl, with the NFL declining to address the subject, according to ESPN. “We have conversations with our partners all the time, but keep them private,” ESPN said of a statement from the league. “Commissioner Goodell has done one sit-down interview in the last five years with the network airing the Super Bowl. … Commissioner Goodell has not done an interview with NBC for the four Super Bowls it has aired since he has been commissioner.”
Was Costas told that his bosses had heard from the league? “No. That doesn’t mean it never happened.” After that, it was clear that NBC as he has repeatedly said over the last few months, were no longer a good fit. Their separation was official last month.
Costas, who still believes that a “dollop of commentary in journalism” can “enhance the broadcast,” continues to work for the MLB Network and has said he hopes to do a show that is along the lines of his old “Later” program on whatever platform he lands on. “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.”