The Voice of American Sports
This month, Bob Costas will anchor U.S. broadcast coverage of the Olympics for a record 11th time. Not since Howard Cosell has a sports journalist reached such legendary status.
Even for a casual sports fan, talking to Bob Costas is a surreal experience. Aside from the guy who does those “In a world…” movie trailers, there might be no one whose disembodied voice is so instantly familiar. It almost feels as if it comes pre-installed in your brain, like Siri on your iPhone. When the conversation ends, you half expect network theme music followed by a word from our sponsors.
Costas, 64, has been a regular on NBC since 1980, and for much of that time he’s been the network’s most prominent sportscaster. He has called World Series games, hosted Super Bowl pregame shows, emceed the Kentucky Derby. When Michael Jordan drained the seconds-to-play jumper that clinched the 1998 NBA Finals for the Bulls and ended his career in Chicago, it was Costas who made the play call. This month, the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games will mark the 11th time he has hosted coverage of an Olympiad, a record for any television broadcaster. Afterward, he’ll fly home to a mantle sagging under the weight of 27 Emmy awards.
Like a Gold Glove shortstop who can also hit for power, Costas has all the tools: the sonorous voice, the requisite full head of still-brown hair, the satchel full of anecdotes and historic references. He has long been known as the thinking man’s sportscaster, willing to offer opinions he knows might be unpopular if he thinks time will vindicate him: He has called for the Washington Redskins to change their name, lamented the weakness of American gun laws, and prophesied an unending concussion crisis for the NFL. We touched on some of those controversies and more in a wide-ranging conversation.
Hemispheres: This is the 11th time you’ve hosted coverage of the Olympic Games for NBC. Do the Olympics have any special meaning for you? Do you buy into all that stuff about the Olympics transcending politics and bringing humanity together?
Bob Costas: I buy into a little of this and a little of that. It’s not all hearts and flowers, it’s not all sentimentality, it’s not all a perfect representation of the Olympic ideal, but if some of it didn’t strike those chords legitimately, then what would be the point? I’ve seen hundreds of circumstances, large and small, in and around the Olympics, that actually do exemplify the Olympic ideal. I’ve also seen tragedies and hypocrisies and corruption and less than admirable behavior and ulterior motives. I’ve seen all of it. It’s a mixed bag.
Hemispheres: Your coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics was complicated by a severe case of pinkeye you were forced to suffer through on air. Are you taking any special precautions this time around?
Costas:Given the Zika virus and my past history, I’m considering doing the entire Olympics in a bee-keeper’s outfit.
Hemispheres: Covering the Olympics requires you to become a temporary expert in sports you’d probably never think about otherwise. Are there any that you just don’t get the appeal of?
Costas:As soon as you say one of those, even tongue-in-cheek, you deeply offend the small fraction of the world to whom that particular sport is everything. There’s no upside. I can only tell you that in 1992 in Barcelona, we showed a little bit of race walking, and coming off the clip, I said, “Having a competition to see who can walk the fastest is a little bit like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest.” The people in the studio laughed, but the race walking community, relatively small as it might be, did not see the humor. Sometimes I have to temper my tendency to be a little sardonic.
Hemispheres: Throw-away jokes aside, this seems to be a pattern for you. People regard you as an impartial arbiter to the degree that, on the occasions you’ve expressed a personal opinion about a hot-button topic—like the Washington Redskins’ name or gun control laws—it has elicited a stronger response than perhaps it would have coming from someone else.
Costas:I think the biggest part of that is that where I say it, it commands the biggest audience. You have to be willing to take that on, that no matter what you say, somebody will completely distort it and misrepresent it, or respond to it not with a reasoned argument but with an ad hominem attack. That’s just the way it works. Look at our politics. Look at our national discourse on almost any subject, and see how little fidelity people have to facts, fairness, proportion, context. Those used to be the basic principles. They’re now quaint, almost outdated notions.
Hemispheres: Is it harder to do good journalism now that the money is so much bigger and even lesser-known athletes are surrounded by layers of handlers?
Costas:I’m lucky enough to be insulated from that because, as part of the network coverage of an event, we do get access. But I grant your point that it becomes more and more difficult for most people in the media to get unguarded access, unmediated access, especially to the biggest names. There’s so much more media now, and there are so many more demands—the social media and the 24/7 aspect of it all—even the most cooperative athlete or coach can’t accommodate all of it.
Hemispheres: Some people think the relationship you just described is part of the problem—that the financial relationships between TV networks and sports leagues make it hard for the journalists who work at those networks to do their job and hold people accountable.
Costas: If I had a criticism of network sports, it would be this: By and large, network sports does an incredible job of covering things visually, and of capturing the drama and the excitement of an event. Generally speaking, network sports does not do that good of a job acknowledging the issues that are a part of sports, the elephants in the room. I talked about steroids in baseball and what they were doing to the record books way before 99 percent of my colleagues did. Everyone knows what steroids did to the game. Does that mean people don’t love baseball? Are people unaware that head injuries are a major issue in football? Do they not watch the Super Bowl? Are people not going to watch the Olympics, even though they know that some nations cheat and some host cities are perhaps dubious? I don’t see the contradiction in acknowledging both of those things. Now, I don’t think that the average sports broadcast lends itself to being Nightline or Meet the Press, but I do appreciate it when someone has enough respect for the audience and is honest enough to at least acknowledge the issues that are there. I’m one of those who, at least when I get the chance, I’ll do that. Why more of my colleagues don’t, I’m not sure.
Hemispheres: Speaking of head injuries in football, you’ve said the game is inseparable from the violence that leads to concussions and chronic brain disease. Is football fighting a rearguard action? Is it doomed?
Costas:I don’t know if it’s doomed, but it’s an existential problem. You can play baseball without steroids. They may never get to that ideal, but clearly they’re moving closer to it. You could play hockey without fights. They do in the Olympics; they do in college. Although we’ll never see it, in all likelihood, you could play big-time college sports and more sensibly align academics and athletics. It would be doable. But as we sit here, it is not possible to play football the way it is played at the highest collegiate level and in the NFL without a substantial number of its participants experiencing brain trauma which will have effects later in life. It’s not possible. The NFL itself acknowledges that. The NFL has said 25 to 30 percent of players will suffer some effects of brain trauma later in life. It is absolutely as much a part of the game as it is knowing that it will rain in Seattle. Football has many things to recommend it. It’s exciting. It’s been a shared experience across generations. The athletes are magnificent, the strategy’s interesting, blah blah blah. All that’s true, but so is the other thing. To deny it is to put a blindfold on.
Hemispheres: You touched on the balance of academics and athletics in college sports. The amateur ideal began as a way of keeping working-class people out of sports leagues, and now it’s a way of letting big colleges operate what are effectively professional sports franchises without the labor costs. Is it time to retire the amateur ideal?
Costas:That’s a complicated question. My feeling is this: The reason people talk about paying salaries to college athletes is that they’ve completely given up on anything that even approaches the ideal of academics and athletics. Do I think it makes sense to pay an equal stipend to every scholarship athlete? Yeah, because athletes have to devote an enormous amount of time to practice, to travel, to play, that takes time away from their being students. Does it make sense to allow players who are hyper-famous when they’re still in college to make money off commercials, as long as they are not receiving it directly from the university or from university boosters? Yeah. I think that makes sense. The real answer here is that university presidents should just say, “No one receives a scholarship to this university who does not have at least a plausible chance to be a legitimate student at this university, if this university didn’t have a football or basketball team.” Alabama’s standard is not the same as Princeton’s, nor should it be, but everyone has a minimal standard. If a potential scholarship athlete could not plausibly meet that minimum standard, with a little bit of help and taking into account extenuating circumstances, he can’t be admitted. That would eliminate a lot of the problems right there.
Hemispheres: What about the movement right now in many sports, especially tennis and soccer, to treat women and men more equally, whether in the size of the tournament purses they play for or the condition of the fields they play on? Are we headed toward an era of gender parity in sports?
Costas:Not on the professional level, because it’s going to all be based on interest. It’s a business. You’re not required to pay the best player in the NBA the same amount that you pay the 50th best player in the NBA. It’s a business.
Hemispheres: When you’re sitting on the porch of the old folks’ home some day, is there a moment from your coverage of the Olympics that will make you say, “I can’t believe I was there for that?”
Costas:From the Summer Games, I would pick Muhammad Ali taking the torch last and lighting the cauldron in ’96 in Atlanta. It was such a stunning moment. It was a well-kept secret. He stepped out of the shadows, people couldn’t believe it. No one had even had a clue. It was both exciting and poignant at the same time. For the Winter Olympics, I would pick Vancouver 2010. The Canadian team beating the American team in overtime in the gold medal hockey game. It was the last event of the Olympics; it was the same day as the closing ceremony. It was perfect in every way. The Americans tied it late, last minute I think, on a goal. Then the Canadians won it on a Sidney Crosby goal, their national hero and golden boy. It was a game that the Americans very much wanted to win, but it was a game that the Canadians needed to win, because it was on their home ice. It was the perfect satisfying capper to the whole Vancouver Olympics.
Hemispheres: I’m surprised you picked a moment from an opening ceremony, because I know you’re generally not a big fan of that particular piece of pageantry.
Costas:The opening ceremony is a ghoul to figure out. It’s three hours, and it can’t all be solemnity; it’s got to be leavened with a little humor, but someone’s going to take exception to it if that humor surrounds their country or some athlete that they care about. Some people think it really should be almost like a church service, and other people think it’s more like Cirque du Soleil and deserves some mockery. I always tried to find a middle ground. Then finally a few years ago, I just said, “You know what? I give up. If someone else can figure out how to do this, let them figure out how to do this.” I don’t do the opening ceremony anymore.