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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Bob Costas

In an excerpt from his 2011 book An Accidental Sportswriter, published on Deadspin, the legendary Robert Lipsyte described how his feelings toward Bob Costas had evolved over the years. The NBC sportscaster had once told Lipsyte, who often wrestled with sports’ political implications, “In the sixties and seventies the issues were more clear-cut—gays, women, Ali—and you were on the right side.” But, Costas added, “Now the prevailing tone is so mean you have to play it straight. It’s not clear-cut, black and white. There needs to be more nuance. There’s more of a need to celebrate”—a defense, perhaps, of his own instinct to err on the side of affirmation. Lipsyte came away with the impression that Costas is half-journalist, half-shill, albeit somebody with the talent to do great work as a pure journalist—if he would only decide to.

Costas’ latest attempt to tackle “the issues” has drawn as much attention to him as anything in his impressive four-decade career. Last Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and the mother of his three-month-old daughter, and then drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility, where, in sight of his coach and general manager, he shot himself in the head. During his traditional Sunday Night Football halftime editorial the following evening, Costas seemed to press firmly on a hot-button issue when he quoted columnist Jason Whitlock: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation.” He (and Whitlock) added, “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a handgun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

Some on the left praised him for raising the point at all, and the right, of course, pilloried him for supposedly attacking the rights of gun owners. (Lipsyte was thrilled.) The sports-fan community, meanwhile, accused him of talking down to viewers and, in the words of Deadspin writer Sean Newell, being “another angry old guy yelling from his porch” (the post was titled, “Here Is Bob Costas’ Sanctimonious, Horseshit Editorial on Jovan Belcher”). Tuesday night on "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell," Costas clarified his remarks, saying, “Do I believe that we need more comprehensive and more sensible gun control legislation? Yes, I do.” Which, of course, makes you wonder why he didn’t just say that at first—in the middle of the highest-rated show of the week, rather than during the ten-spot on MSNBC.

Should Costas have just offered up a few bland, milquetoast words, as he did when controversial former NFL owner Art Modell died earlier this year? Or should he have taken an even stronger stand—for starters, by writing his own words rather than quoting somebody else’s, and more to the point, by actually advocating sterner gun control, which he now claims to support, on network television? One thing is clear: choosing the middle route was entirely in keeping with Costas’ career-long quest for more “nuance.” The way sports are consumed in 2012, though, makes this route less tenable than ever.

Costas has emceed a record nine Olympics, called major events in all of the Big Four sports (he was an analyst during the most recent Super Bowl), and even used to fill in as a Today Show host. His sprightly mischievousness and slightly self-aware tone—his young looks and outer-borough accent help in that respect—seem intended to ward off accusations of self-seriousness, but he is a sports whiz with real chops. Among his historic interviews were the 1994 sit-down in which Mickey Mantle openly discussed his alcoholism and, last year, the first interview with former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky after accusations of child sex abuse surfaced. “It seems that, if all of these accusations are false, you are the unluckiest and most persecuted man that any of us has ever heard about,” he famously told Sandusky during a masterful interrogation that was appropriately harsh and prosecutorial. (Then again, nobody was going to accuse Costas of being too tough on a child molester.)

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Growing up in Queens with a father who constantly had gambling debts, Costas learned to love sports and loathe risks. “I think the best line ever written about me was, ‘He’s reverent and irreverent at the same time,’” Costas once said. As an opinionmongerer, he is known for his traditionalism and purism. He was initially against allowing wild cards to enter Major League Baseball’s playoffs, for example, and last year delivered a commentary (during halftime on Sunday Night Football, like this weekend’s gun remarks) against excessive celebrations of touchdowns, saying, “True style is in decline, while mindless exhibitionism abounds.” Though not everyone agrees with him, Costas rarely fails to be congenial and magnanimous—he even admitted later he was wrong about wild cards—and besides, the grounds for contention remain firmly within the foul lines.

Lipsyte, that great cynic, was the representative sports journalist of the long decade, from the moment in 1964 when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali until the advent of free agency in the mid-‘70s, when sports came to be seen like any other business. But in recent years, baseball’s steroids scandal and revelations about the long-term neurological effects of football have raised the dicier question of whether sports are less moral than most other businesses. Costas, a creature of the post-Ali, pre-steroids landscape, has increasingly found himself behind the times. For example, his book Fair Ball, a manifesto for baseball traditionalism, was published in 2000—after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home-run-derby-of-a-season in 1998—and did not deal with steroids. “I was talked out of it,” he said later, “and I regret that now.”

Since then, Costas has treaded the sports world’s churning waters through a mix of clarifications and equivocations. Costas said NBC was wrong to neglect to highlight that a diving gold-medalist was also the only openly gay athlete at the 2008 Olympics—after neglecting to highlight it himself. This year, he admirably noted that many felt the Opening Ceremony should acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes, and then split the difference when it was gametime, continuing just to note that many felt that way. In 2008, Costas’ harsh words for sports bloggers (“a high-tech place for idiots to do what they used to do on bar stools”) garnered little attention. What became a story was when he hosted Deadspin editor Will Leitch and sportswriter Buzz Bissinger on his HBO show, Costas Now, and let Bissinger call Leitch “full of shit” and rant about how blogs are “dedicated to dishonesty.” Leitch tried to stay polite. Costas tried to stay passive, and afterwards said to a reporter of Bissinger, his friend, “I knew more or less where he stood, but we did not speak beforehand.”

Sunday night, he was going for a similar type of plausible deniability. In the wake of an historic sports event, and with 20 million viewers watching, Costas said a few meaningless sentences about “perspective” and then effectively outsourced the rest of his commentary to Whitlock. He hedged in order to try to make himself inconspicuous.

He did this even upon clarification: Tuesday night, he insisted, as though trying to exculpate himself, “I never mentioned the Second Amendment, I never mentioned the words gun control.” What seems evident is that Costas did not want to mention these things at the moment when everyone was watching. He did enough to please the pro-gun control partisans and plenty to piss off the anti-gun control partisans, but not enough to convince the great middle or even make it clear exactly where he stood. Some of us felt his editorial, even in its compromised state, was somewhat worthwhile, but his interview with O'Donnell gave us little evidence to rebut the case that it was “sanctimonious” and “horseshit.” 

The sports world has evolved beyond a place when you can stay above the fray, particularly when you are as ubiquitous as Costas is. In 2012, we discuss human ugliness manifested in sports, as we did when Lipsyte was tweaking Ali’s detractors as barely hidden racists. But, having learned from Lipsyte that sports is a sort of civic religion, we use it as a launching pad to discuss broader issues like, say, the prevalence of handguns in this country—and we do it without equivocation or apology, and in our own words. Today you can be a great sports journalist, but you have to get your hands dirty. You can also be a great shill, although you may have to sell your soul. What you can’t be anymore is Bob Costas.