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 ah, 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 DIFFICULTIES.
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.