Of course I’m ecstatic to watch the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. I’ve been a fan of the Birds since rooting for Roman Gabriel and the Fire High Gang in the 1973 season.
But I’m increasingly conflicted, and I’m in good company with broadcast legend Bob Costas. Like many of us, Costas will be watching from home this year.
That’s a loss for the NFL, where Costas’ voice signifies an event of consequence. It’s what comes from anchoring 12 Olympics, 10 NBA Finals, and seven Super Bowls, while earning 28 Emmys. Sunday was to have been his final Super Bowl, but Costas’ name was missing when NBC Sports announced its broadcast team. Instead, Dan Patrick will host the pregame show alongside Liam McHugh.
In an email to Sports Business Daily, Costas said that the decision was “mutually agreeable” and that he was actually happy about it. “I have long had ambivalent feelings about football, so at this point, it’s better to leave the hosting to those who are more enthusiastic about it,” he wrote.
I can attest to his “ambivalence,” having interviewed him on CNN on a few occasions, including after he made headlines in November with remarks about the future of football. Costas participated in a collegiate symposium on journalism at the University of Maryland alongside Christine Brennan, Michael Wilbon, and Tony Kornheiser. Unbeknownst to Costas, USA Today’s Tom Schad sat in the audience, and the headline above Schad’s resulting story was jarring to anyone who hasn’t paid close attention to Costas for the last decade: “Bob Costas on the future of football: ‘This game destroys people’s brains.’ ” Schad accurately reported what Costas said, but his words lost any nuance each time they were repeated.
As Costas told me on CNN soon thereafter, “with each iteration, the ninth, the 10th, the 11th, the headline becomes more inflammatory, the context is lost.” He said he did not launch a broadside against the NFL.
“In fact, all I was doing was acknowledging that the NFL has a problem. That problem is obvious,” he said.
“This is not a matter of being more or less candid. I stand by anything I say publicly. But it used to be understood that you have a conversation among a half-dozen people at dinner, even if the content is the same, you might express yourself differently. You might express yourself differently in front of 18 people in a class as opposed to 400 people at a symposium or as opposed to speaking to you now or as opposed to speaking at halftime of an NFL game.
“It isn’t that I would say anything different, but depending upon how much time you have, you might craft it differently. You might choose different words. So I stand by what I said. But what I said in totality because I wasn’t directing it to [your] audience or to the Sunday Night Football audience, I was directing it to 400 young journalists at the University of Maryland. What I said in totality is something different than what some people took from little fragments of it.”
There was nothing new about Costas’ observations. He’s said much the same thing before over the span of a decade and often, on NBC, in front of the biggest audience, not just in all of sports, but in all of television, on Sunday Night Football. No wonder, then, that two days after his collegiate remarks, he was honored by the Concussion Legacy Foundation for his “leadership keeping concussion and CTE conversation in the national spotlight.”
It’s not that Costas is anti-football; he’s just conflicted. He’s told me many times that he grew up a fan, admires the many he has met in the game, appreciates the familial connections the sport engenders and the bonds it has developed among its fans. But given what’s now known, he just can no longer embrace it as he has in the past, and so he feels he is not the right person to present it to an international audience.
“No matter how exciting it is. No matter how dramatic it is. No matter how much we value the generational connections. No matter how interesting it may be. The nature of the sport is that not all, or not most, but a substantial, an alarming number of those who participate, especially if they participate from youth football on, are going to suffer significant brain damage along the way,” he told me.
Football’s declining television ratings and youth participation suggest he speaks for many, including me. That doesn’t mean I’ll root for the Eagles any less. It just signifies that I’ll do so with an awareness I did not have as a boy when I first walked into Veterans Stadium wearing my No. 5 jersey with “Gabriel” on the back.