Bob Costas: The Conscience of NBC Sports on Sandusky, Olympics Scandal and, Yep, Being Short
Mired in the ratings cellar, the network has pinned its gold medal hopes on the charming, challenging sportscaster.
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On June 5, 2011, at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, NBCUniversal presented a whopping $4.38 billion bid for four Olympic Games, the biggest rights package to date (by more than $2 billion) for the world's most popular sporting event. Bob Costas -- NBC's pre-eminent sportscaster, the primetime host of the Games since 1992 and the only on-air personality in the network's 19-person delegation -- was seated smack in the middle of the rectangular table formation, directly across from the IOC's autocratic president, Jacques Rogge. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke introduced Costas, who spoke last.
"He had a yellow piece of paper with a bunch of scribbled notes," says Burke. "The rest of us had typed-out text that we had rehearsed five times. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, he really hasn't prepared as much as all of us have.' "
Burke needn't have worried.
"He was fantastic," he recalls. "He was able to talk from the heart about what he felt the Olympics meant to people in the U.S. and the unique way that NBC has told the Olympic story over the years. He was far less scripted than we were -- and did far better."
Four hours later, Costas found himself on a corporate jet with his new boss. Burke had replaced Jeff Zucker, whose trajectory at NBC began at the 1988 Seoul Games with a 36-year-old Costas presiding over the network's late-night coverage. Costas and Burke were returning to the States earlier than the rest of the NBC delegation -- Burke for an off-site management meeting, Costas to call a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game for MLB Network.
About an hour into the flight, Burke got the phone call. Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told him the IOC had accepted NBC's bid for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and two more Olympics, keeping the Games at NBC through 2020. "Bob has a pride that goes beyond his role on the broadcast," says Burke. "He helped get it for us."
"We shared a high-five at 40,000 feet," says Costas, dryly. "He leaped out of his seat, and I thought it prudent to leap out of mine." There was a hug.
More than an able pitchman, Costas, for more than three decades, has been the conscience of NBC Sports. And for two decades, he has been the face of the Olympics for U.S. viewers. Beginning July 27 for 17 days, he'll be on the air from London seven days a week, four to five hours a day, delivering his expertise on sports ranging from the 100-meter dash to platform diving. "At his heart, Bob is a storyteller," says Don Ohlmeyer, the former NBC executive who hired Costas in 1980 after noticing him on KMOX radio in St. Louis. "When Michael Phelps is going for his seventh medal, to be able in 35 seconds to deliver a succinct understanding of the importance of the moment, not just in the 200-meter butterfly but the overall context of the Olympics and what he accomplished -- that's what Bob does."
No other U.S. media company has presented more Games; London will be NBC's 13th (the Olympics were first broadcast here in 1960 on CBS). With a domestic audience that can hit more than 30 million each night, the network's multibillion-dollar investment is expected to spring NBC's primetime from the ratings cellar, hit the reset button on the Today show three weeks after an awkward anchor transition from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie and expose the entertainment division's new fall series to more than 200 million potential viewers. But the Olympics are more than a promotional opportunity (analysts expect NBC to lose as much as $200 million on London). Like Sunday Night Football, the Games are inextricably tied to the identity of NBC and, at this moment, serve as the network's life preserver. "The fact that NBC Entertainment hasn't been doing as well as it should," says Burke, "has made it more important to retain the NFL and the Olympics than it otherwise would be. That's definitely true."
But Costas is more than a play-caller or congenial glad-hander. At a time when so much sports journalism toes the line, when LeBron James' 2010 free-agent ESPN infomercial hit a nadir in pandering and a "don't shit where you eat" attitude colors the beat, Costas, 60, is almost singular in his approach. During a Nov. 27 halftime essay on football's "knuckleheads" -- overexuberant players whose elaborate end-zone celebrations (the cha-cha-cha, backflips, even a Plaxico Burress-inspired pantomime of shooting yourself in the leg) have earned their teams penalties -- Costas opined: "We live in a culture that grows more stupid and graceless by the minute. … Is it too much to ask that you confine your buffoonery to situations that don't damage your team?"
Dick Ebersol, who before he resigned in May 2011 was Costas' frequent producer through more than 30 years at NBC, avers that it's easy to be controversial on networks like HBO; not so much at the Peacock. "They don't have a deal with an NFL or an MLB or an NHL," he says. "But Bob was able to have his opinions and to ask the very people that we had billion-dollar contracts with very difficult questions."
Indeed, during a March segment of his NBC Sports Network program Costas Tonight, he pointedly asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman if the league has gone far enough in providing a "disincentive" to fighting. Less than a year earlier, NBC Sports had finalized a 10-year, $2 billion deal to carry NHL games on NBC and its cable sports arm. "Nobody put a gun to my head and told me I had to go on with him," says Bettman, who has been interviewed numerous times by Costas. "They're legitimate questions. Bob has opinions, but they're based on a thorough analysis and understanding of the subject. If his opinion isn't the same as yours, he respects your right to respond. I've been interviewed by people who, when you give them an answer they don't like, either cut you off or make it contentious. That's not Bob's style."
Costas has been outspoken about the damage steroids have done to baseball. But his early and vociferous disdain for MLB's wild-card system, whereby playoffs that otherwise would be impossible among three division winners are filled out with a wild-card fourth team, was not as universally embraced. In 1994, NBC returned to broadcasting baseball after a four-year hiatus in a joint deal with ABC, and Costas began railing against what he viewed as the inherent unfairness of wild-card teams getting equal weight as division winners. "Here you are in a brand-new relationship with baseball, with everybody happy to be back together, and he would go on for a whole inning about the wild card," laughs Ebersol. "The head of one of our competitors called me up and said, 'How the hell can you let him do that?!' I said: 'He's really good at it. If he annoys some of the people, he's really telling it like it is.' " Surprisingly, longtime MLB commissioner Bud Selig concurs. "I know how much Bob loves the sport," he says. "I know that Bob can be controversial, and he's a man of very, very strong opinions. I've learned to live with that. It sure beats apathy."
At the July 27 Opening Ceremony from London, Costas plans to call out the IOC for denying Israel's request for a moment of silence acknowledging the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Games. On the 40th anniversary of Munich, it's a decision he finds "baffling." When the Israeli delegation enters the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, Costas will stage his own protest: "I intend to note that the IOC denied the request," he says, modulating his voice as if he were on the air. "Many people find that denial more than puzzling but insensitive. Here's a minute of silence right now." Says Ebersol: "There's a reality in business; there were times when I thought he got too forceful. But I'm very proud of the fact that Bob was able to be Bob." By all accounts, Costas' new boss, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, is also letting Bob be Bob. "He does not compromise his question-asking," says Lazarus. "But he does not lead the witness down any path other than the truth."
Nowhere was that more obvious than in his interview in the fall with Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who on June 22 was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Costas had been working contacts in an effort to land interviews with Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who testified he'd seen Sandusky in the shower with a young boy, and head coach Joe Paterno, to whose son Jay he'd been reaching out. NBC News bookers were in State College, Pa., circling Sandusky and his attorney Joe Amendola, who agreed to an exclusive interview when he learned Costas would conduct it for the network's Rock Center. Costas had read the gruesome grand jury report and spent an hour on the phone the day before with a social worker who specializes in forensic interviews with sexual abuse victims for the New York Police Department. But as Amendola was en route to New York -- on an NBC-chartered plane -- executives began to see promos for a CNN interview with him. "I expressed my displeasure in fairly colorful terms," says executive producer Rome Hartman, adding that he does not know if Amendola made the last-minute and now-infamous suggestion to get Sandusky on the phone with Costas out of a misguided effort to make amends. "He knew, and we kept reiterating, that what we really wanted was an interview with his client."
The call was patched through the control room. It lasted 36 minutes. At one point, the line died and producers had to phone Sandusky back. Regardless, Costas seized the moment with blockbuster results. "Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?" he asked. Sandusky repeated the question back to Costas. "What are you willing to concede that you've done that was wrong?" he asked. Sandusky: "I shouldn't have showered with those kids." An incredulous Costas: "That's it?" And so it went.
The segment on the Brian Williams-hosted newsmagazine ran for eight minutes, but Costas pushed for more. "I felt like they should have blown out whatever segment was after it," he says. (It was a piece about Alabama's controversial immigration law.) "They did make more time for it than they had originally formatted. Let's put it this way: They had a big inning but left a few men on base."
In retrospect, Hartman agrees, though he points out, "There was no shortage of damning stuff" in those eight minutes. "It was a phoner, and it was one of the most gripping interviews that any of us will ever see," he says. "Bob was pitch-perfect. He was respectful on a human level, but he didn't give a single inch."
Indeed, the interview (an extended version of which ran online) continued to reverberate throughout Sandusky's trial. An exchange about his charity work -- during which Sandusky stated, "I didn't go around seeking out every young person that I've helped for sexual needs" -- was of particular interest to prosecutors, who on June 15 asked NBC News lawyers to authenticate a full, unedited transcript of the interview.
Since the segment aired Nov. 14, there has been a formal effort by the network's news division to use Costas more. On July 12, he appeared on Today to discuss the damning results of a seven-month investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh that found failures at the top levels of the Penn State hierarchy -- and that Paterno might have known about Sandusky's behavior as far back as 1998. "Everybody at Penn State knew that Paterno had no real superiors. They tried to get him to resign a few years earlier, and he told them to kindly leave," says Costas. "This is a tragic situation, and a small part of the tragedy is what Joe Paterno's failures and neglect did to his own reputation."
NBC News -- and certainly dozens of other outlets -- are still pursuing a sit-down with Sandusky and his wife, Dottie. But Costas prefers to let his November interview stand as his contribution to exposing an abuse that destroyed dozens of lives and ripped the lid off the insular world of college athletics. He says, "I don't want to be in the Jerry Sandusky business."
Ohlmeyer was taken aback when he laid eyes on his then-27-year-old hire after only hearing him on the radio. Recalls Costas: " 'Don said, 'You have a future, but damnit, you look 14! How much older do you think you'd look if you grew a beard?' I said, 'Five years older.' He perks up. 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, because that's how long it would take to grow one.' "
Costas retains elements of his old boyishness. He's given to wisecracks (when he partnered with Ahmad Rashad on NBC's football games, they worked malapropisms from Rashad's Minnesota Vikings teammates into their reports). Although he celebrated his 60th birthday in March, his full head of hair remains brown save for some flecks of gray in the sideburns. And, no, he does not dye it.
Much to his two children's bemusement, Costas is cantankerously at odds with technology. He has voiced an aversion to the social-media culture of oversharing: "It's inanity." As to whether his NBC bosses have asked him to join Twitter, he replies: "No, they know better." He has an iPad but likes to start his day with an actual newspaper (after a cardio workout on the elliptical): He has The New York Times delivered to his door and also reads the New York Daily News, New York Post, Wall Street Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He favors texting but does it on an antiquated flip phone. Says Rashad: "When you become an icon like Bob, you've got to have something weird about you. So I guess it's his phone."
Costas is very comfortable in his own skin, routinely dropping self-deprecating comments about his height (he's 5-foot-6½). Told he'll be shot with New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (6-foot-8 and who also attended Syracuse University), he does not bat an eye. "Oh, I see what you're going for," says Costas with a wry grin. "It's all about the contrast -- tall, short, black, white."
His self-assurance makes him even more of a natural than some of his peers in front of the camera. "A lot of TV people are a little nervous to be on TV," says Ricky Diamond, who produces Costas Tonight. "He's the least tense person I've ever seen on TV." Adds Bruce Cornblatt, who has worked with Costas at NBC, HBO and now MLB Network: "When broadcasters interview people, they stop listening at a point because it's their turn next. Bob is sure that when the person stops talking, he'll know what to ask next."
Costas always knew he wanted to be a sportscaster. "I wanted to be like Mel Allen and Red Barber and Vin Scully and call baseball games on the radio," he says.
Like many men of Costas' generation, his bond with his father was formed at the ballpark. But Costas' father was an inveterate gambler. "He didn't bet on horse races or cards. He bet on ballgames." He co-opted a young Bobby as his enabler, sending him up to the roof of the house at 145 New Highway in Commack, N.Y., to adjust the TV antenna or out to the car in the driveway to pick up games from far-flung cities. "I would turn on the ignition so I could get the radio on, and then I would move up and down the dial and try to tune in the Cardinals from St. Louis or the Phillies," he says, matter-of-factly. "And then I would report the scores to him."
His father, John Costas, was gainfully employed as an electrical engineer, which should have kept the family in middle-class comfort. "But we didn't have much security because our fortunes ebbed and flowed depending upon whether Wilt Chamberlain made or missed his free throw or Whitey Ford could get Al Kaline to ground into a double play."
Then one Friday in 1970, while walking through JFK, his father died of a heart attack. He was 42. Costas was 18 and had been accepted at Syracuse, where his father thought he should study criminal justice. At his father's funeral, a gambling buddy pressed a bulging envelope into the hands of the bewildered, grieving teen. "He says: 'Give this to your mom. Your father was up when he died.' It was $6,000 in $100 bills," says Costas, "which was more or less my father's estate."
Costas' tuition was defrayed by scholarship money; his grandmother and great aunts also helped. And he had money saved from various jobs, including one selling above-ground swimming pools.
That none of this soured Costas on sports underscores the power of ballgames to connect fathers and sons. "We had differences," says Costas of his father. "He was charismatic, very smart. We were much different in terms of personality. But sports was our bond."
Costas has inducted his children into that fraternity. When his son Keith, 26, was a child, he often was on the road with his dad; today, Keith is an MLB Network researcher. Costas' daughter Taylor, 22 (both kids are from his first marriage to Carole Krummenacher), a recent Boston College grad, will be in London working on the Olympics with producer Molly Solomon. (Costas and his second wife, Jill Sutton, have a co-op on Central Park West and a home in St. Louis.)
Costas grew up rooting for the Yankees and the NFL's New York Giants, but he switched his baseball allegiances to the St. Louis Cardinals after moving to the city in 1976 to take a job as the play-by-play announcer for the American Basketball Association's Spirits of St. Louis. But he says he no longer has a rooting interest in any one team. As a broadcaster, he explains, "what you root for are interesting games and stories."
For New York baseball fans, there are few stories as interesting -- or heartbreaking -- as the unrealized potential of legendary slugger Mickey Mantle. Costas interviewed Mantle multiple times, including shortly before he died in August 1995 and only a few months after he'd licked a lifetime of drinking by checking himself into Betty Ford, a consequence of a career plagued by injuries and insecurities. "There are a few subjects that you really know," he says. "You know 'em cold. I knew not just the facts of his life, I knew the shadings of it. I understood in a way that somebody who didn't grow up in that era would not -- I understood what he meant to people."
Costas and his friend Billy Crystal -- who directed the 2001 HBO film 61* about Mantle and Roger Maris' 1961 race to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record -- spent many nights with Mantle at the bar of the Regency Hotel. When he died, Crystal helped Costas write the eulogy that Costas delivered at Mantle's funeral. "In some way, we really felt that our childhood had finally ended when Mickey died," says Crystal.
Costas is known to carry around a 1958 Mantle baseball card. He keeps it in a clear plastic protective case and never leaves home without it. "If I wake up in the morning and go out to get a cup of coffee in jeans and a T-shirt, I'll put the card in my pocket because inevitably someone will stop me," he explains. "I don't want that guy, in his only encounter with me, to go home and tell his buddies, 'He's a fraud! I asked him to see the Mantle card, and he doesn't have it.' "
Costas knows fans harbor a passion for sports every bit as intense as his once was -- when a flawed father first took his 5-year-old son to the ballpark. But he no longer lives and dies by batting averages. He's an avid Broadway-goer (he recently took his daughter to Newsies), and while he's partial to John Sayles and Woody Allen ("I thought To Rome With Love was better than the reviews said it was"), he's not above a Jennifer Aniston rom-com.
But authenticity is paramount to Costas, making him unique in a media environment rife with bombast. Not Costas: "If I express an opinion, it's something that I have thought out and can defend. I don't deal in ad hominem attacks. I'm not a pot-shot artist."
THE COSTAS MARATHON -- 9 OLYMPICS WITH NBC: Since his start as a late-night Olympic show host in 1988, NBC has seen viewership of the games fluctuate.
- Seoul 1988: 25.3 million
- Barcelona 1992: 27.5 million
- Atlanta 1996: 33.1 million
- Sydney 2000: 21.5 million
- Salt Lake 2002: 31.9 million
- Athens 2004: 24.6 million
- Turin 2006: 20.2 million
- Beijing 2008: 27.7 million
- Vancouver 2010: 24.4 million
Source: Nielsen, average primetime audience