Bob Costas Stands Tall

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After a taping earlier this month of cable television’s longest-running sports show, “Inside the NFL,” three of the co-hosts stood around an HBO studio in Manhattan chatting. There was 6-foot-5 Cris Collinsworth, 6-foot-4 Dan Marino and 6-foot-2 Cris Carter. Darting past them to shoot more promos was Bob Costas, who at 5-foot-7 was the shortest among them and the only one who had not played pro football.

All do a professional job. But in a field where most announcers and analysts are former players and coaches, it is Mr. Costas, 53, who stands tallest among American sports broadcasters. Whether it is covering his beloved baseball, basketball, football or hosting the Olympics for NBC, as he will again in February 2006 from Torino, Italy, Mr. Costas delivers a clear, concise and surprisingly literate style.

Unlike many of his press box peers, Mr. Costas doesn’t confuse sports with real life. “The sports broadcasters that I’ve admired, past and present, always struck me as people who, if you went to dinner with them and sports was off-limits,” said Mr. Costas, “they would not be at a loss for conversation.”

His style and vocabulary place Mr. Costas in a class with legends like the late Heywood Hale Broun and Dodger announcer Vin Scully. He can be as intellectually challenging as the late Howard Cosell, but without being irritating. Among contemporary broadcasters, probably only Al Michaels is in the same class. His efforts for NBC and HBO this past May earned Mr. Costas his fourth consecutive Sports Emmy as Outstanding Studio Host.

Mr. Costas sees a “mixed bag” among sports announcers these days. Some work is very admirable, while much of the rest, he said, “is like it’s geared toward a drunken frat party. You know, it’s geared toward the biggest yahoo in the house. It’s all bombast in place of personality, shtick in place of style. The loudest person is the most engaging. The way you show personality is to be louder than everyone else, to, in effect, grab the audience by the lapel and shake them.”

In the earliest days, announcers were mostly sports journalists. Beginning in the 1960s, when sports became an extension of entertainment on TV, the networks turned to former jocks with names familiar to fans.

Howard Cosell, among others, complained at the time that former sports stars either would not or did not understand what it meant to be a journalist. “When the ex-players came in, they probably didn’t advance journalism much,” said Mr. Costas, “but they did-at least the best of them-advance understanding of the games themselves because they had an insider’s view.”

Indeed, while many former athletes have worked hard to make the transition, there is a difference. It was never so obvious as last winter, when several pro basketball players, taunted by spectators in Detroit, rushed into the stands and began brawling with ticket holders.

Fueling the controversy were announcers who sided with the players. “The commentators that night lost that very important distinction between self-defense and retaliation,” said Mr. Costas. “Self-defense is perhaps unavoidable. It’s your last resort. In the case of retaliation, you always have a choice. Those players may have been provoked, but, in truth, they were not in any danger until they went into the stands.”

Mr. Costas is an expert on baseball but otherwise a sports generalist who does his homework and adds to it with keen observations. That is what he plans to do as host of the Winter Olympics for a second time. “What the audience appreciates from a broadcaster,” said Mr. Costas, “isn’t so much an insight which they hadn’t thought of. It’s an acknowledgement of what they’re thinking of. Hopefully, you can do both. But sometimes the audience just wants you to give voice to what they’re thinking. And sometimes, if something is obvious, even if it’s uncomfortable for the network or for some of the participants, you need to acknowledge it to keep faith with the audience.”

Over the years, Mr. Costas has proven his interview skills outside of sports. He hosted a late-night talk show on NBC from 1988 through 1994. And he currently delves into subjects that go beyond the normal sports page fodder on his monthly HBO talk show, “Costas Now.” He likes the change but doesn’t like the direction that news talk has taken recently. That became very public last month when Mr. Costas declined to guest host for Larry King on CNN because he wasn’t comfortable with the subject-the millionth report on the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba. Mr. Costas insisted he did not leak the “Larry King Live” story and refused to discuss it on numerous talk and news shows that sought him out.

He had agreed to be a substitute host for Mr. King 20 times over 12 months because he felt he had time this year. By next year he will be too busy with his HBO shows and NBC’s football coverage. “I don’t think I fully took into account how much the landscape had changed on cable TV,” said Mr. Costas, “and that some of the subject matter that’s kind of a staple of cable news television isn’t necessarily my cup of tea.”

“Once it did get out,” he added, “I was surprised but gratified that so many people had such a favorable response to it. And beyond the public response, I can’t tell you how many broadcasters and producers, people involved in television, have called or written or when I encounter them said, ‘Boy, we’re so happy you did that. We’re so happy there was some statement, in effect, that some of this stuff is headed in the wrong direction.'”

Looking back on a career in sports TV that began while the Queens, New York, native was still attending Syracuse University, Mr. Costas said by and large his professional life has been a “dream job.”

“If you care about your work, you’re always going to have some regrets that not everything is a perfect representation of your ability or your sensibility,” he said. “It can’t be because these things are collaborative efforts, and sometimes you’re at the mercy of the format or circumstances you can’t control. But in the big picture, that’s a minor complaint. I wound up doing the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. And people seem to get a kick out of it. You get all this positive feedback and people seem to appreciate what you do. So you’d be pretty churlish to have much of a complaint about that.”