Hours after Stevie Johnson mocked shooting himself in the leg, and just a few hours before Plaxico Burress publicly laughed it off and told Johnson that it was “all love,” Bob Costas used a portion of Sunday Night Football’s halftime show to do some excessive moralizing about excessive celebration in the NFL. He called players like Johnson “knuckleheads” and admonished us, the American public, for being “too busy keeping up with the Kardashians to notice [that] we live in a culture that in many ways grows more stupid and graceless by the moment.”
Somewhere, on a La-Z-Boy in rural New England, a senile 80-year-old pumped his fist in agreement and wondered who the hell the Kardashians are.
Just a few weeks ago, we had occasion to praise Costas. He’d just conducted the first television interview with alleged child rapist Jerry Sandusky, and he’d done so with just 15 minutes’ warning. This was commendable! Costas didn’t falter, and he managed to say the phrase “slap-slap-slapping” with a straight face. Bob Costas did his job, and he did it without patting himself on the back.
In his halftime lectures, by contrast, Costas has a habit of smarmily distancing himself from the business he works in. During his Sunday sermon, Costas never made any connection between the “calculated displays of obnoxious self-indulgence” and the cameras that capture them. In reality, it’s impossible to separate Costas’ network from the NFL: It was NBC that, in October 1939, aired the league’s first televised game. The Eagles beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 23-14, and with just two cameras rolling—one at the 40-yard line, one in the mezzanine section—some unknown number of humans watched it on W2XBS, NBC’s “experimental station.”
The experiment worked out pretty well for the network. Seventy-something years later, NBC’s Sunday Night Football dominates the ratings. Players love the primetime platform, and they ham it up for the truckloads of high-definition cameras that NBC carts across America each week. When someone like Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs dances on Sunday night, the camera doesn’t turn away. Maybe the guys in the production truck are too busy keeping up with the Kardashians to cut to commercial.
As SB Nation’s Andrew Sharp points out, Homer Jones invented the touchdown spike in 1965—a celebration that Costas called a “simple, elegant punctuation”—because Pete Rozelle’s league fined players for throwing the ball into the crowd. Throwing the ball into the ground was a legal alternative. There’s no readily available footage of the spike, either—but I’m sure it looked great on camera.
It’s incredible, but not really surprising, that Costas isn’t able to see this as a natural evolution of the form, an evolution spurred on by the television network that pays him to deliver lectures on our woebegone culture. Somehow, he could keep a straight face as he described how absurdly invested we are in the “mindless exhibitionism” of our “knucklehead” athletes—while NBC’s stock footage of DeSean Jackson’s touchdown dive or Tony Scheffler’s fencing act played on a loop.
But Costas is free to request that NFL players “confine their buffoonery” to a smaller, less damaging stage. I’d recommend he take his own advice and start delivering those halftime speeches into the mirror, at home, with the cameras off.