Legendary sportscaster Bob Costas, the longtime face of NBC Sports, has confirmed that it was his comments about concussions in the NFL that got him removed from the network’s Super Bowl coverage in 2018, offering insight into how America’s most popular sports league exerts influence over the media that covers it.
In a report Sunday by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Costas said the network’s move came after more than two years of his public criticism of the NFL and its history of handling players with concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
“I think the words were, ‘You’ve crossed the line. My thought was, ‘What line have I crossed?’”
Costas, 66, told ESPN that he first stepped away from NBC’s NFL coverage after the 1993 season, citing “the sheer violence of the game … I just didn’t feel comfortable with that.” When the NFL returned to NBC in 2005, he said he agreed to host “Sunday Night Football” out of loyalty to the network.
— ESPN (@espn) February 10, 2019
But his concerns about concussions grew over the years, culminating with a December 2015 essay intended for “Sunday Night Football” that coincided with the release of the Will Smith movie “Concussion” and included the line: “There is a direct and often tragic link between football and brain damage.” NBC rejected the essay, and when asked why, Costas said he was told it was because the network was negotiating with the NFL for Thursday Night Football rights.
“It was at that point that I realized that this was an untenable situation for me,” Costas told ESPN. “I knew my days there were numbered.”
Over the next two years, Costas stepped up his public criticism. In November 2017, he told a journalism symposium at the University of Maryland: “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.”
He said it was soon after that that he was told he would not be part of NBC’s Super Bowl coverage the following February.
“I recall the phrase, ‘It’s a six-hour, daylong celebration of football, and you’re not the right person to celebrate football,’” Costas told ESPN. “To which my response was not, ‘Oh please, please, change your mind.’ My response was, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’”
The NFL and TV networks have a symbiotic relationship worth billions of dollars a year. Five of America’s 10 most-watched programs in 2018 were NFL-related, according to Nielsen.
“Look, the NFL isn’t just the most important sports property, it’s the single-most important property in all of American television,” Costas told ESPN. “And it isn’t even close.”
“The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL’s tune. It’s just kind of the way it goes. Everyone walks on eggshells around the NFL,” he said.
After 40 years, Costas quietly left NBC last month. Costas told ESPN he had no hard feelings toward his former employer, and called the breakup “very fair and amicable.”