It was somewhere back in the 80’s. I’d just driven 3,000 miles from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Southern California to begin law school. Baseball had always been a passion of mine, oftentimes approaching a second religion.
For years, I had listened to Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola do NBC’s Game of the Week. Their knowledge and insight into the game, combined their great personalities and senses of humor had created a weekly event that I rarely missed, especially when needing to take a break from a regimen so foreign to someone who’d just left commercial fishing in the Atlantic trawl fleet.
And so, it went beyond dismay, when I heard that NBC had decided to break up the team of Kubek and Garagiola, pairing Joe with Vin Scully and Tony with some no-name kid on NBC’s “B Team.”
Hastily, I wrote a nasty letter to NBC head of sports, Tom Watson, condemning the break up of my favorite MLB announcers and relegating Kubek to second-string status. I cc’d the letter to Kubek, telling him that he always had a bowl of “red” (my chili) when he was in SoCal. A week later, I received a short two sentence reply from Tony thanking me and saying if a “broken down sportscaster” ever appeared at my door, he’d be glad to take me up of the chili offer.
Three days later, I get a two-page, handwritten letter, from NYC. It began by telling me that Tony, his new partner, had passed on my letter to Watson to him and he wanted to respond. He went on to say that he had had a love affair with our national pastime since he was a kid, presenting at length all of his bona fides and concluding that he and Tony were “nobody’s ‘B Team’” and that they were going to do a great job and to just give them a chance.
That no-name kid’s name was Bob Costas.
This past Sunday, Costas revealed that his 40-year career with NBC ended abruptly with his being removed from last year’s Super Bowl broadcast team. The reason being his political stance and opinions linking football and brain damage.
Costas had been expressing those opinions in essays, interviews and commentary since 2005, when the issue of repeated head blows in the NFL was being linked to brain damage and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a neurological degenerative disease, whose symptoms include dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, personality change, aggression and depression, memory loss, confusion and suicide.
The issue was the centerpiece of the 2015 movie, “Concussion,” which addressed the findings of the autopsy of former Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. In July of 2017, CTE was found in 99 percent of former NFL players brains donated in a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study took 2,002 brains from men who played football at the high school, college, or professional level. CTE was found in 177 of them.
For NFL players, 110 of 111 brains showed signs of CTE.
But getting back to Costas, why was he removed from his contracted role in Super Bowl VI at the relative last minute? His views on the violence in football and its established concomitance with brain damage had been expressed for over a decade.
As Costas related to ESPN this past Sunday, he was told by an executive producer for NBC sports at that time that he had “crossed the line.” The line that he had crossed were comments he had made at a November 7, 2017, symposium at the University of Maryland which included:
“The issue in sports that is most substantial — the existential issue — is the nature of football itself. The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains — not everyone’s but a substantial number. It’s not a small number, it’s a considerable number. It destroys their brains.”
Ironically, this was the same Bob Costas who in 1993 grilled NBA Commissioner David Stern about Michael Jordan’s alleged gambling debts, to which Stern snapped, “And how much money do you owe?” to which Costas retorted, “It doesn’t matter, I don’t represent the NBA.”
Not a word from NBC.
The same Bob Costas who during a Monday night NFL game brought up his criticism of the racist connotation inherent in the Washington Redskins team name. Not a peep from NBC there either.
During the 2000 Major League Baseball steroids scandal, Costas felt obligated, when no other commentators or announcers dared touch the story, to openly discuss the subject as it tainted the game and its hallowed records of the game he most loved. All remained silent from the palace halls at NBC.
Add to those expressions and incidents of candor, integrity and journalistic courage his coverage of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi when he used the moment of the Ukrainian woman’s biathlon team as an opportunity to address Russia’s intervention in the country, its “hostile” record on gay rights and its sponsorship of the vicious Assad regime in Syria. No problem there either.
But now, he’d “crossed the line.” That line being the endangerment of a corporate deal involving the toy department of America-sports and NBC’s billion (nope, not million) dollar deal with the NFL. As one person described the entirely unique buyer-seller relationship in which a Brinks truck backs up to the NFL and asks how much would you like us to spend? Oh, and if there’s any problem with the denominations, we can break it down to 20’s and 50’s if you like.
This is the man who was the icon of sports in our generation. The guy that was the voice of 11 Olympics, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Kentucky Derby, boxing and hockey to name a few. NBC even created a talk show for him, which ran for seven seasons.
His versatility and ability to relate to a tableau that included Johnny Cash, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Tom Jones, Pierre Salinger, Gary Busey, Ozzy Osbourne, William Shatner and Charlton Heston. All of which only adds to the ultimate question of what line do you have to cross to have all of that disregarded in one fell swoop of the axe. Quixotically, I have to go to Ned Beatty’s soliloquy to Howard Beale in the classic movie “Network”:
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and it won’t be had. Is that clear. You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case.
“You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro dollars, multi-dollars, reichsmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels.
“It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone.”
And so, with one phrase, “Football destroys brains,” for speaking the truth one too many times, Costas, sans gold watch, was summarily and unceremoniously dumped upon the ash heap of desks cleaned out.
All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention — something Costas knew, courageously practiced and took to his career’s death.
North American native tribes revered the Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird was a supernatural bird whose beating wings created the thunder and wind of tremendous storms, and lightning sparked from the bird’s eyes. The bird was often depicted on totem poles.
Costas was the bird whose words created a storm among NFL executives. He might be gone from the official NFL airwaves — but look for him to be included among the totems of righteousness and the seekers of truth.
Last, much gratitude to you, old friend. You went out the way you came in when you cared enough to hand write that two-page letter to some no-name kid cracking the books in the OC.
As to the winners of my last column inviting reader opinion on who would win Super Bowl VIII: A tie.
Sheriff Erik Apperson, who said the best part of the Super Bowl was its heralding of the advent of spring training in America’s real pastime.
Jean Robson, who said she had a good book sitting next to her if the game turned out to be boring.