Sports Nut

The Shill Becomes a Journalist

In speaking up for gun control after the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, Bob Costas finally took advantage of his pulpit.

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Taking potshots at Bonnie Bob Costas, America’s premier sports broadcaster, is a national pastime almost as popular as the spectacles he fronts. And why not? In these cheesy and uncertain times, he seems too comfortable, too confident and, at 60, too cute. He does his job better than you will ever do yours, dude. If you get one.

But the current dust-up, over what was construed as a pro-gun-control editorial during the sacrosanct halftime of a football game, goes beyond the usual imaginative attacks on Costas’ conservatism, liberalism, dutifulness to his SportsWorld masters, or subversive asides.

In connecting the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide to handguns, Costas dared to set the door ajar—though not quite open—to the far larger issue of the violence we have loosed on ourselves and our psyches by idolizing the NFL’s warrior avatars. Costas, who is even smarter than you think, is aware of what he’s doing.

Since 1993, Costas and I have been in an uneasy relationship of mutual regard and disagreement, each waiting for the other to fulfill unreasonable expectations. He wants me to be more open to the joy of sports. I want him to take advantage of his pulpit and be more of a journalist.

I think Costas broke through before I did. In his own stealthful way, of course.

The known sequence of events was simple and sturdy enough to bear the burden of all the symbolism we piled on top of it. Around 7 a.m. last Saturday morning, in the gun-ridden house they shared in Kansas City, Mo., 25-year-old Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his infant daughter, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, then drove to work. Ms. Perkins died at the hospital. So far, a sadly banal story that might not even have gotten much play in Kansas City.

But young Belcher was a starting linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. In the parking lot of the Chiefs’ practice facility, on a day before a game, Belcher thanked his head coach for all he had done for him, then shot himself to death.

The immediate response was pure fanboy SportsWorld. The hue called for the game to be called off, the cry was for the game to go on. A Facebook group, Save Our Chiefs, called off its scheduled demonstration against top management. (The team was 1-10 before the shooting.) How would the tragedy affect the Chiefs? Would the betting line shift? (The opposing Panthers were favored by 3 points.)

The Chiefs won.

Sunday afternoon, in a 90-second editorial during the halftime of the Sunday night NFL game on NBC, Costas quoted from a column by Jason Whitlock: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.” Costas then paraphrased from earlier in Whitlock’s column: “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

By filtering his remarks through Whitlock, a provocative, sometimes brilliant columnist who is in most ways Costas’ extreme opposite—a big, loud, black, unfettered former college football lineman—it seemed as though Costas had kept his signature remove and deniability.

In an email, Whitlock told me, “My column was primarily about my feeling the Chiefs shouldn’t have played on Sunday and the fact they did is an indication that football’s importance in American society is exaggerated to an unhealthy level. A secondary point in my column was that American gun culture is out of control. I don’t have a problem with Bob choosing to focus on my secondary point. He paraphrased and quoted my sentiments accurately. He only had 90 seconds to make a point.”

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Costas explained that a last-minute decision to comment on the murder-suicide made him go with the Whitlock column. Had there been more time to write, he said, “I wish I had talked about the disproportionate number of athletes involved in domestic violence, the gun culture, and the effect football may have on those who play it.”

In an excellent Fox Sports podcast, the two men talked further about those issues.

But by then, the reaction to Costas’ halftime remarks had poisoned the air. Sean Newell in Deadspin called his editorial “so laughably out of touch it almost has to be satire.” (Deadspin? Satire?) And speaking of satire, former presidential candidate Herman Cain tweeted: “You tune in for a football game and end up listening to Bob Costas spewing sanctimonious dreck.” (Cain? Sanctimonious dreck?)

Costas says he believes that current on-field violence could make spectators “ambivalent” about watching the game and cause parents to keep their children off the field. But in the haze of the initial reports on the murder-suicide in Kansas City, Costas felt it was “irresponsible” to speculate too far.

Yet as more evidence piles up that repeated head traumas, however slight, can lead to disorientation and aggressive behavior, not to mention dementia and early death, the possible connection to Belcher becomes one worth exploring. I hope Costas will follow up his quick, bold stroke with such explorations. He has the intelligence and the platform.

Costas is gingerly stretching his reach. Last July, on the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, as the Israeli team marched into the Olympic Stadium, he pointed out that the International Olympic Committee had refused requests for a moment of silence during the parade. He then fell quiet for 12 seconds, a rebuke to an NBC financial partner.

In our almost 20 years of dialogue, Costas has been most bothered by my use of the word shill to describe how he promotes sporting events. As I’ve written before, be believes that he drops in “enough commentary and insights in games” to be thought of as a journalist, and that he does it “not to throw fire bombs but to help hold the mainstream to account,” separating him from commentators on the Internet.

I officially excuse him such, um, sanctimonious dreck after Sunday’s editorial. While by the standards of contemporary journalism, it was distanced and measured, by the ground-floor bar of sports broadcasting, it was Murrow during the blitz.

Update, Dec. 5: As expected, Costas called the next morning and the 20-year dialogue continued. He was aggrieved that the piece gave the impression that he had made “a baby step in the right direction” after all his broadcasts over the years on concussions, stadium scams, etc. I yelled at him for not understanding the significance of talking about the gun culture. Everything else had been within the context of sports—what he should be doing, what few others on the dummy screens were doing. But this was new, a leap forward, bridging sports and the larger society. If he reports on jock domestic violence and the effect the game has on the psyches of players and spectators—as he has promised—he would be further fulfilling a role he claims to envision. When I got off the phone, my wife said, “What is it with you guys?” I told her I wondered myself.