Three years ago, after leading the Jacksonville Jaguars to a
playoff victory in Denver, quarterback Mark Brunell
suggested--live, on national television--that his team won
because it was filled with devout Christians. The sideline
reporter nodded like a woodpecker, as sideline reporters do. "So
many of these absurdities," says Bob Costas, who watched that
postgame interview with dismay from his home in suburban St.
Louis, "are now just accepted in sports."
Costas is seated in his New York City hotel suite, studying
scouting reports for the baseball playoffs, but the memory
brings him off the sofa, body and voice rising apoplectically.
"If I had been doing that game and had a minute to fill, I would
have been like Howard Beale in Network," he says of the
exasperated anchorman who blew a gasket on the air. "How many
devout Christians fell before the fists of devout Muslim
Muhammad Ali? How many devout Christians swung and missed at the
high heat of devout Jew Sandy Koufax? I don't know what [the
producer] would be yelling in my ear, but...."
It's a pity that viewers were deprived of this moment: Bob
Costas--mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore--busting the
balls of a born-again quarterback as NBC scrambled to cut his
microphone. "I understand the concept of the mystery of faith,"
says Costas, "but it's a strange God indeed that would answer
prayers for a free throw and not the prayers of a sick child."
Anyone who has ever yelled this at his or her TV set, say amen.
This is Costas off the air, Costas Unplugged. You will not
likely hear him Unplugged, see him Unhinged, while describing
the Fall Classic on NBC. "Generally speaking," he says, "network
sports make no place for commentary of any depth." Nor, he
acknowledges, do viewers want to hear it wedged into their World
Series coverage. So he seeks other avenues, venting in
off-the-air or late-night-TV interviews. He has to. Whip-smart,
well-read, sports-addled, Costas cannot abide much of what he
sees on TV. Which raises the question: Can a man be on
television but not of it?
He somehow pulls it off, maintaining a healthy awareness of, and
distance from, his medium's mediocrities. Among them: "The
ridiculous sugarcoating of everything, so that the Greater
Greensboro Open is presented as some treasure chest of memories
that we'll always cherish. The tinkling piano music that makes
everything in sports a Hallmark card."
In truth everything in sports is a (Donald) trump card:
One-upping one's fellow man in the crassest way possible has
become, for many, the highest goal. "If I see another running
back grinding in the end zone after scoring a touchdown that
cuts his team's deficit to 31-6,..." says Costas, a TV
flickering silently in front of him. "What's presented as
exuberance and showmanship in sports is really just loutishness
and a lack of class. Dignity and class are now considered
conservative notions. It shows how corrupt the thought process
has become. No one said Bill Russell or Jerry West or Dr. J
didn't play with emotion, but I don't remember any of them
chest-bumping anyone on their way to the foul line." Perhaps it
will happen next season: Costas, at the end of his tether, going
Howard Beale during an NBA on NBC game, as the network
desperately throws up a slide: EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL
But probably not. He was a frequent guest on the early NBC shows
of David Letterman, who's held responsible for ushering in our
Age of Irony. Would somebody--a page from NBC, perhaps--please
now usher it out? "The standard mode of discourse today is to
speak of other people with contempt or disgust," says Costas. He
won't do so. He would rather become wigged-out Howard Beale than
wigged lout Howard Cosell. As a quarterback once said, Thank God.