2018 Frank Deford Lecture: Bob Costas on Sports, Politics
When longtime NBC sportscaster Bob Costas was growing up on Long Island, he spent his days in pursuit of one goal:
Fourteen-year-old Costas “was just trying not to get his ass kicked by the greasers in junior high school,” he said Monday, drawing a laugh from the packed auditorium at the Belo School for New Media.
And though young Costas could not have possibly predicted what was to come, he was determined to be a part of American sports -- if not on the field, in the pressbox.
As the keynote speaker for the 2018 Frank Deford Lecture, Costas shared his perspectives on sports coverage, politics and the intersection of both. His career has made television history: among other notable awards, Costas has won over 20 Emmys and currently holds a record for an Emmy win in three different categories– primetime, sports and news.
Costas began his talk with a tribute to Frank Deford, a sports writer for Sports Illustrated and NPR commentator who passed away last year. Deford epitomized the golden standard of sports writing, Costas said.
“Even as media evolves, technology involves, our sensibilities change, there’s still something that should be timeless and everlasting about the kind of approach Frank Deford brought to it,” Costas said. “He wasn’t afraid to be critical, but he wanted to be true and fair. He wasn’t looking to piggyback off a famous name or big moment, but trying to take you inside that moment.”
Costas said while quality journalism like Deford’s is still widespread, technology has changed the way we consume information, sometimes for the worse. We now live in a world where consumers can have their preexisting biases confirmed and amplified daily, he said.
Major news producers are largely the instigators, in his view. Costas said the business model of much of modern media is to heighten resentments of their core audience – something he said has contributed in large part to the country’s divisiveness.
“Shades of gray don't serve any purpose,” Costas said. “In the world in which we now live, if you disagree with me, you’re not just wrong on the merits. I am at liberty to misrepresent what you say, extrapolate from that misrepresentation an entire constellation of beliefs that make you easier to turn into a strawman, and then while I’m at it I can demonize you as a person.”
It is the task of student journalists to maintain journalistic integrity, he said.
“There are barbarians at the gate, and they’ve got to be held off,” Costas said. “We’ve got to hold our ground against those that believe that whatever they want to be true is therefore true.”
Skirmishes between President Donald Trump and the media are worrisome, Costas said. Though he acknowledged the press is an entirely human institution, with occasional biases and sloppy or questionable work, he said to label it as the enemy is dangerous.
“It’s not above criticism,” Costas said. “But the idea that the Fourth Estate is somehow an enemy of the American people, rather than an indispensable component of what makes this country what it is, is the kind of thing you hear in banana republics, not in the United States of America.”
Costas said the intersection of politics with sports is often inevitable. He mentioned the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, which has sparked turmoil in the National Football League, and sexual abuse allegations from Olympic gymnasts.
He added most sports coverage should be dedicated to the glory of the sport, but that “the elephant in the room” must also be acknowledged. And ultimately, in appealing to broad demographic groups, sports coverage can create a more unified America.
“I call it social issues rather than politics,” Costas said. “Very often sports is the place where issues play out in the best way, because sports cuts through so much of what otherwise separates us.”
Freshman Journalism Major