Award-winning sports journalist Bob Costas reveals that his decades-long relationship with his employer, NBC, ended over his public comments about the dangers that American football poses to its players — specifically, the regular exposure to concussions or lesser impacts that lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Costas and NBC parted ways shortly after a talk he gave at a journalism symposium in 2017 at the University of Maryland. “[Football] destroys people’s brains — not everyone’s but a substantial number. It’s not a small number, it’s a considerable number,” he said at the symposium.
In response, NBC Sports promptly asked him to refrain from discussing the issue publicly without first getting their approval. Only days later, though, he appeared in an interview on CNN in which he again discussed CTE. While Costas had broached the issue over the course of his tenure, even on air, his executive producer Sam Flood informed him that he had finally “crossed the line.”
"What line did I cross?" – Bob Costas pic.twitter.com/WeEsUyLT3K
— E60 (@E60) February 8, 2019
Costas was set to announce the Super Bowl only a few months later, which would have been his final game, but was promptly removed from the broadcast. “I recall the phrase, ‘It’s a six-hour, daylong celebration of football, and you’re not the right person to celebrate football,'” he told ESPN in an exclusive interview that was aired over the weekend. “To which my response was not, ‘Oh please, please, change your mind.’ My response was, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.'”
Bob Costas, Concussion Advocate
The Concussion Legacy Foundation honored Costas a couple nights after the symposium with an award; over the course of his career, Costas had always been very open about his CTE concerns. In the past, he had even bowed out of commentating for the NFL because of his moral qualms. “The sheer violence of the game, and then the celebration of that violence, even before CTE became a specific issue … I just didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he shared. When he rejoined the NFL commentating team in the 2000s, he openly criticized the brutal aspects of the game, to the dismay of his producers. “I tried to use the forum [NBC] gave me to make those points. They gave me bits and pieces, but eventually they took those bits and pieces away from me.”
He attributed this degradation of journalism to the influence that the NFL holds over television networks. “Look, the N.F.L. isn’t just the most important sports property, it’s the single most important property in all of American television.” While NFL is a cornerstone of the United States’ identity and culture, youth participation has been dropping over the past decade with the biggest drops synced up to Junior Seau’s suicide and the 2015 release of a film based on the true story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who published the first medical reports of CTE, Concussion. Historically, the league has tried to play down both the prevalence and the health consequences of its physicality, but could not effectively bury the 2017 report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzing the brains of deceased professional football players: 110 of its 111 subjects’ brains showed signs of CTE.
Costas said that he always has felt a journalistic obligation to report the news boldly and honestly. “A friend of mine said … ‘Whether it’s news or sports, you can never go wrong being on the right side of history. I was right about steroids in baseball,” he said, referring to the revelations in the early 2000s about players using performance-enhancing drugs, “and I was the only network broadcaster who even mentioned it. And I mentioned it all the damn time.”