There’s an old adage: Money talks. And recently there has been outsized coverage about the money paid to football commentators because of their huge salaries, which to some cynics, like me, a former sports journalist, is coverage-overkill because of an undisputable fact: No matter what the voices in the announcers’ booth say. It’s what happens on the grid that determines the winning and losing teams. Bring in a new announcing team to call the games of a bad team and the result is the same – a bad team is still a bad team.
Despite the attempted glorification of networks to promote their announcers as if they were calling the plays from the quarterback position instead of from the safety of the announcer’s booth, there is also another undisputable fact:
If you’re a Los Angeles Dodgers fan your favorite announcer will be Vin Scully. But if you’re an old-timer, who goes back to the days when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, the most likely favorite will be Red Barber.
Personally, my favorite growing up in New York was Marty Glickman, a name that many of today’s sports fans probably never heard of, but very well known in the trade as one of the best ever. I worked with Glickman for eight years on The Schaefer Circle of Sports TV series and he treated everyone with kindness and consideration, in addition to delivering top notch play-by-play commentary.
During his five decades of broadcasting, Glickman was best known as a football and basketball announcer. If you listen to a basketball announcer call a game today, you’re listening to a copy of Glickman’s creation – he changed the way basketball games are called.
Recently, there has been considerable media coverage of football commentators who next season will be doing play-by-play, analyzing and second guessing plays called by coaches. But despite all the “inside baseball” coverage of announcers taking their voices to other networks, none of the current class is in the same grade as two who are a breed apart – Bob Costas and John Madden.
Here’s why I feel that way:
Despite all the hype about specific sports happenings and all the promotion by networks about televising events like the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics, broadcast journalism can be divided into two segments — serious and entertainment reporting.
News that convey information that can disrupt or change people’s lives, for better or worse, falls into the serious segment. But no matter how it is hyped, when sports events are talked about as if the survival of the planet was at stake there is only one truth — sports journalism, as does sporting events, belongs in the entertainment sector.
Reporting on serious subjects is best exemplified by the past broadcasts of Ed Murrow (left) and his colleagues during the Second World War, Walter Cronkite’s Vietnam reporting and the Mike Wallace segments on 60 minutes. (You can Google them, I think.) There is no such comparison in sports journalism, although to listen to some announcers describe a football game, you would think they are at the scene of a pitched military battle.
When I used to listen to Mike Francesa on sports talk radio station WFAN, N.Y., he would often delve into the serious facets of sports that transcended the sports pages. But he was an exception to the usual sports talk show formula that would take calls from “Joe of Queens,” who would criticize the latest trade made by his favorite team or complain about the high salaries that ballplayers were demanding as if he was paying the tab.
But it can not be denied that today’s sports programming largely stays away from topics that deserve and should receive more coverage — like athlete’s misbehavior and team management decisions that try to hide the seemy side of their businesses. Instead of acting as reporters the great majority of sports announcers act as shills for the leagues and teams they cover or the networks that hire them. Negative news about the sordid happenings off the sports field is only covered when it rates page one print exposure, and the announcers have no choice except to report it. But even then, the coverage is limited, compared to print coverage of the situations.
However, over the years two sports commentators have stood out from the pack. One has often merged the two aspects of broadcast journalism, the most recent example being when China, the International Olympic Committee and sports marketing sponsors of the Beijing Winter games were criticized by Bob Costas.
John Madden is the other broadcaster who has stood apart from the others. Madden dominated the TV entertainment area of the broadcasting booth as no other commentator has, since he hung up his mic in 2009. Many people credit Madden’s novel commentary as a prime factor in powering the popularity of football.
When Madden called it quits, Al Michaels, his long-time partner in the booth, said Madden has a unique place in pro football history. “No one has made the sport more interesting, more relevant and more enjoyable to watch and listen to than John. There’s never been anyone like him and he’s been the gold standard for analysts for almost three decades.”
In my opinion, no one provided better analysis and at the same time was enjoyable to listen to than Madden. But over the years if there were an “Ed Murrow of Sports Broadcasting award,” the perennial winner would be Bob Costas. Murrow kept America abreast of the war from his base in London. His commentary was a matter of appointment listening.
Costas is set apart from other TV sports commentators because he is not afraid to speak his mind. During an interview on CNN’s January 23 Reliable Sources program, Costas said, in part, “But the IOC deserves all of the disdain and disgust that comes their way for going back to China yet again. They were in Beijing in 2008. They go to Sochi in 2014. They’re shameless about this stuff.”
Costas also acknowledged what everyone involved in sports knows but attempts to hide: Any network that broadcasts big sports events is simultaneously in a quasi journalistic position at best. “You’re reporting a news event and what surrounds it in the case of the Olympics, it isn’t just what’s confined to one game in a stadium. You’re reporting on an event, but you’re also promoting the event.”
The moguls who run the networks and their cohorts, the sports associations, sports marketing sponsors and sports announcers, try to camouflage the fact that sports is a big business. Unlike other broadcast commentators Costas refuses to gloss over its warts. He is sports broadcasting’s rival to print sports journalism, which stopped covering up the warts of sports over a decade ago.
That’s why sports journalism needs more commentators like Costas who have the courage to act as reporters instead of shills, and less “gee whiz wasn’t that a great play” commentators. TV sports journalism also needs more analysts like Madden, who can glue the viewers to even a boring game because of his unmatched broadcasting demeanor, which meshes seriousness and humor.
On July 18, 2012, The Hollywood Reporter called Bob Costas “The Conscience of NBC Sports.”
The article ended with the following: “But authenticity is paramount to Costas, making him unique in a media environment rife with bombast.” Not Costas: “If I express an opinion, it’s something that I have thought out and can defend. I don’t deal in ad hominem attacks. I’m not a pot-shot artist.”
In his four decades at NBC, Bob Costas showed that he is much more than “The Conscience of NBC Sports.” He is the conscience of television sports journalism.
So Howard Cosell said he told it like it is; But Bob Costas was really the Ed Murrow of his day, a true journalist