Cosell was the trail Blazer, yet Costas is the conscience Of TV sportscasters
On Feb. 8, a few days before this year’s Super Bowl, the lead story in the day’s New York Times, covered two full pages, but it was not about the game. It was about the “N.F.L.’s Precarious Diversity” problems. And In its Feb. 9 edition, the Wall Street Journal’s Super Bowl story was headlined, “A Rocky Season Reaches The Super Bowl,” detailing how scandal and an increase in concussions rocked the league.
The Super Bowl was televised by Fox on Feb. 12. To hear the Fox broadcasters’ collective commentary, including Fox’ so-called panel of experts, all of whom wrongly predicted a Philadelphia win, everything with the Super Bowl was ice cream and cookies. (Full disclosure: I also predicted an Eagles win, but I changed my mind immediately after Kansas City won.)
On the political scene, broadcasters for over a week gave an open mic to GOP reps who criticized President Biden for not immediately shooting down the Chinese spy balloon. When it was revealed that the balloon was purposely allowed to fly over the U.S. because doing so provided important information about China’s intelligence gathering techniques, a person had to read a newspaper for the entire story.
Whether it’s sports or politics, relying on television for getting detailed facts about a happening is like thinking that three trees make a forest. Ever since I can remember, most broadcast reporting was more like the headline or the lead graph of a print article – an abridged summary of a story. And, sadly, the same is too often true today.
Many years ago when I was a sports reporter, prior to jumping into public relations. There were unwritten editorial rules: 1) If it happens off the sports field it isn’t a sports page story, and 2) don’t write anything that will upset the leagues. (I once had an exclusive story that today would be on page one, spiked today because I was told, “it will upset the league.”) In those days, many devotees of only the sports pages, were unaware of the atrocious behavior of athletes, unless a major one was involved.
It’s been years since and print sports journalism has changed for the better. Today, the stories of athletes misbehaving are routinely reported in sports sections. Sports talk radio shows routinely cover the unruly and cantankerous misbehaving athletes. Sadly, that often is not the case with game-day analysts and play-by-play commentators.
There has always been a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” rule for sports broadcasters at the local level and for many network voices.
In my opinion, Bob Costas is leaps above other TV sports broadcasters because for years he has had the courage to “tell it like it is.” His doing so put his job on the line, many people believe. He spoke the truth about the brutally of NFL which likely cost him his Super Bowl gig at NBC. And he undoubtedly upset the IOC and NBC brass by criticizing during the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics in 2012, the IOC’s refusal to honor the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists, 40 years earlier, during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In 2012, The Hollywood Reporter rightfully labeled Costas “the conscience of NBC sports.” In my view Costas is the conscience of the entire sports broadcast community and is heads above the majority of cable news’ political commentators when analyzing most any happening.
As sports broadcasting each year has become increasingly expensive for marketers to use effectively and because most marketers want to present a happy face and avoid controversy, Costas’ telling it like it is might never again be equaled by other sportscasters. But you can still listen to Costas’ no holds bared opinions during his too infrequent appearances before major sporting events as a guest contributor on CNN.
Perhaps Howard Cosell was the first TV broadcaster to use: “tell it like it is.” The truth is that he deserves credit for ushering in a more newsy type of sports broadcast. And there’s little doubt that he was perhaps the first national sports broadcaster to act like a “hard news” and opinion journalist.
Yet Cosell lost me first with his glorification of football’s “big hit” and later from an item he wrote in his New York Daily News column that was 100% wrong regarding the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, where I might humbly add, helped manage the press center and acted as the trouble-shooter for media complaints on behalf of the game’s hosts.
Cosell ran an item disparaging the reputations of some prominent sports editors, when a simple telephone call to check on its accuracy to me or the editors would have proven the item had no basis in fact. (On the print side, Dick Young of the New York Daily News changed the way baseball was covered by leaving the press box and going into the club house to speak to players.)
When viewing a ballgame on TV, you’ll see the action on the field as it occurs and you’ll hear the broadcasters describe how difficult some plays were, even though to seasoned viewers they looked like run of the mill plays that occur during every game. To his credit, Keith Hernandez, the New York Mets game day analyst often says, “That’s a play a Major Leaguer should make.”
On football telecasts you would hear how franchise owners are the finest of gentlemen, even though for decades they turned blind eyes to research showing that aspects of football can cause player’s brains to malfunction, leading to life-long disabilities and death. To me, it’s reminiscent of the Big Tobacco executives who swore to Congress that they didn’t know smoking could cause serious illnesses. Obviously, the self censorship of sports news by game day play-by-players is now the unwritten rule.
You’ll also hear broadcasters extol the civic virtues of athletes and feel sorry for them because of the draining travel required. How about the dough they make? Mind you, mostly private travel or first-class.
Listening to the commentary of cable TV’s political and sports broadcasters is similar to being a passenger on a ship. You can see the tip of the iceberg, not the entire one. This is especially true about all aspects of cable political commentary and most aspects of TV sports reporting.
For viewers to get the entire story about happenings in sports and political worlds, reading a respected print publication is not a suggestion – it’s a must.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist can be reached at email@example.com