A Celebrations of a Broadcasting — And Journalist — Icon
As a critic I have rarely looked very deeply at the world where TV and sports merge. This is mostly because the only sport I follow religiously is baseball and a lot of that is done more through the sports pages than ESPN. This isn’t quite fair, though, because if there is one profession that is basically immune to the changing times, it is the sportscaster. This has been true locally ever since radio and TV entered the games; icons like Phil Rizzuto and Curt Gowdy lasted for decades and it is only recently than Vin Scully stopped being the voice of the Dodgers. This is just as true at the national level; Howard Cosell and Jim McKay represented ABC for much of the Golden Age of Sports, and say what you will about Tim McCarver, it seemed like he would be there forever.
Today, however, I want to discuss one of the longest lasting icons in the field, a true legend who has passed through the halls of journalism, sports and entertainment without missing a beat. I’m speaking of Bob Costas.
Costas has been an icon on NBC Sports nearly as long as I have been alive. One of the great joys of Ken Burns’s magnificent documentary on baseball was watching Costas relate not just the moments he celebrated, but those he witnessed. The highpoints include his being in the Red Sox locker room for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, watching the preparations for the celebration going up, and then witnessing the horror of the bottom of the tenth inning. Also glorious was his first hand observation of one of the games great moments: Kirk Gibson’s miraculous home run in the 1988 World Series that from beginning to end seemed out of a B-Movie. But Costas has never been blind to the sports inequities. He was one of the earliest observers as to the rise of the steroids epidemic, and was for most of his career shouted down until it became too obvious to look away from. He also has never truly believed in the increased postseason play, which has not stopped him from talking about it.
For those of us with a long memory, one remembers that Costas was the first representative of NBC’s late night: Later With Bob Costas. Indeed, when David Letterman famously left NBC for CBS, the widespread assumption was that he would end up succeeding him in the 12:30 AM spot. Though it’s hard to imagine another white, straight male changing the face of late night, given Costas leaning towards journalism rather than entertainment, you could certainly how it might have been different. But in the end NBC went for the self-described ‘complete unknown’ Conan O’Brien. One can hardly argue that late night television as well as comedy is poorer for that selection.
Instead Costas would go in a different direction. In 2001, he started the late night show On the Record with Bob Costas, arguably one of the most brilliant journalism programs they ever did.
HBO has always been, even before it became the founder of Peak TV, a great place for sports documentaries and journalism. Admittedly quite a few had the sepia tones of nostalgia that so many fans look back on, but more often than not they would look in to the hard truths. ‘The Curse of the Bambino’ was just as focused on the racism within the Red Sox organization as the triumph of Bucky Dent and the error of Bill Buckner. And they handled the risk takers just as much as the famous: they gave equal attention to icon Muhammad Ali as they would to Curt Flood, the Cardinal outfielder who challenged the system of baseball even though it cost him his career. And one of the best journalism shows on any TV is Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel where for more than twenty years he and his teams have looked unflinchingly at some of the biggest issues facing every aspects of sports, from whether Tokyo was in any position to host an Olympics a full year before the pandemic to how the desire for participation trophies may have damaged the American psyche.
So when Costas ended up HBO, it was a perfect match. Costas was basically given the freedom to interview anyone he wanted on any issue he wanted, only some of which had to do with athletics. And it suited Costas’ personality — he’s never been confrontational or particularly hostile; rather, he will gently poke at the flaws of the subject’s argument or try to give a group of easy question before gently poking his subjects with what he wants to know. I remember in 2003 when he was interviewing John Dean and Carl Bernstein about Watergate, and subtly asked Bernstein: “Who is Deep Throat?” (Bernstein deflected.) I also remember how while interviewing Kevin Kline while he was promoted his Cole Porter biopic, Costas gently told the viewers that Porter was married as a cover to have affairs with people of both sexes. (Even now, Kline’s true sexual orientation remains a mystery.) Nor was he afraid to go hard at people he thought were clearly in the wrong. One of his first interviews with Vince McMahon about the XFL turned into a shouting match that would’ve gone viral had the term had existed back then. (Given what we know about McMahon’s treatment of all his employees, I’d like to see a rematch.)
And though Costas almost never dealt with politics in any way, he didn’t shy away from it either. During the War in Iraq, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were supposed to go to the Hall of Fame to commemorate Bull Durham. Because of their very strong political leanings, Cooperstown revoked the invitation. On his next show Costas invited Sarandon, Robbins, Robert Wuhl and Tim Shelton to discuss Bull Durham and what they would’ve said had they been given an outlet as well as what they thought of MLB’s behavior.
But for whatever reason, it didn’t last particularly long. In 2004, the series was cancelled. Costas ran a panel show called Costas Now for awhile — it ran monthly and was less concentrated — but by 2006 Costas was gone from HBO.
That doesn’t mean he was gone, of course. Even while Costas was On the Record he was still broadcasting for NBC. He was always their go-to guy for the Olympics as well as almost every other sporting event they had. And I was glad to see that every so often, the MLB network will have return to his first love and broadcast a ball game.
But as sports have become more and more part of the culture war, as athletes are becoming more political and as more and more scandals about so many of the institutional sports we held dear have become public, it has become more and more obvious we need a man like Costas and his type of journalism more than ever. Which is why I was elated when in July HBO announced that Back on the Record with Bob Costas would begin airing monthly.
There are few signs that Costas has changed in the interim. He’s still willing to take on the hard issues — he talked to Billie Jean King and John McEnroe about mental health and being an icon in tennis; he talked to David Cone about the pressure of being an athlete in the age of social media, he talked to Peyton Manning about being a comedian. And he will challenge certain people — when Cleveland announced it was no longer going to call its baseball team the Indians, he pointed out to a hostile panel that sixty percent of Cleveland fans don’t care one way or the other.
And Costas remains unafraid to speak truth to power. In his closing monologue for his first show back, he challenged the IOC for not only decided to have its games during a pandemic, but far too often being willing to have dictatorships so often be the host country. As he eloquently put it: “If you test positive for marijuana, you can’t compete at the games. If you violate human right abuses for decades, your country can host the games.”
All of this, of course, could come across as yet another one of those diatribes that so often passes as cable news. The thing is, Costas never comes across as angry and he has a sense of self-effacing humor that so many ‘angry white men’ don’t have. In this same monologue, he addressed the fact that during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Putin took the opportunity to annex the Crimea. He referred to that the as the second greatest act of terror during those games, ‘the first being, of course, infecting me with pink-eye.’ (Costas red-rimmed eyes during the broadcast of the Olympics were more talked about then the actual games; it’s good to know he has a sense of humor about it)
It is rather shocking that the still youthful looking Costas is fast approaching 70. He shows no signs of slowing down, as the fact that he’s back doing a show that, frankly, athletics and journalism desperately need right now. Like Bryant Gumbel on HBO Sports, he is one of the last of his breed and we need journalists like him more than ever. I hope this isn’t a sign of him deciding to slow down.