I came back from the July 4th holiday last week and had a surprising message on my voicemail. It was Bob Costas, asking me to call. In the message he sounded, well, like Bob Costas, articulate and stentorian, but there was a hint of peevishness to it as he asked me to return the call. It took me a few minutes to figure out why he had phoned at all. And then it hit me.
A month ago on this very site, I explained why I was boycotting watching the Summer Olympics: It’s become my view that we as a nation have become entitled, ugly fans devoid of any sense of sportsmanship, and that through its Olympics coverage NBC not only abides this, but, in fact, nourishes it. I wrote:
This isn’t patriotism anymore—it’s imperialist bullshit, a relentless drumbeat of “We’re America, and the rest of you suck,” aided and abetted by the billion-dollar U.S. Olympic complex, Bob Costas the orchestra conductor waving the baton and leading the jingoism, all set to Yanni.
So you can see why perhaps Bob may have been a trifle bit annoyed.
To be clear, I like Bob Costas. He is measured, eloquent and more often than not analytical in a truly trenchant manner that has all but vanished from televised sports. The default now is ESPN’s Chris Berman, a man whose jocularity I once took as much-needed joie de vivre, but who has since devolved into merely the class clown. On the other side of the spectrum are the deadly earnest “essays” that treat an athlete’s dislocated shoulder like the finale of Brian’s Song. (Just try to watch the waxing poetic of Jimmy Roberts, or a segment of Rich Lerner’s painful “Championship Journal” on Golf Channel without retching.) But Costas has steadfastly remained the adult in the room, rising above the locker-room tomfoolery that now represents the stock-and-trade of network sports coverage, the SportsCenter Effect run amok. All of that said, it didn’t change my opinion that NBC’s Olympic programming was often treacly and annoyingly boosterish.
When Bob and I finally connected by phone, I felt reasonably prepared to defend my opinion. He was equally determined to prove I was grossly mistaken.
Coming at me like Perry Mason, he told me that an objective analysis of NBC’s telecasts of the last four Olympics would show that between 40 and 50 percent of the in-depth profiles of athletes were of non-Americans. He also took issue with my claim that the network never shows a gold medal ceremony, complete with playing of national anthem, of any non-American winner. (And we’re not talking about CNBC at 3 a.m., but prime-time NBC coverage.) “Anyone who’s familiar with my work—and no one’s work is above criticism, including mine—could not fairly ascribe to me a sensibility of maudlin emotional manipulation or jingoism,” he argued. (Politely.) “In fact, if there was anyone among all network sportscasters who would pull on the opposite end of that rope, it would be me.”
He admitted the “nature of the assignment” can sometimes risk pushing coverage over the patriotic line. “If someone covering whitewater canoeing declares that the silver medalist has earned this overcoming the greatest adversity in the history of mankind because their cat died prior to the opening ceremonies, that isn’t my fault. And all I can do is arch an eyebrow and politely distance myself from it. And you can’t distance yourself that much—otherwise you need to get up and leave the chair.”
In my defense, I never claimed that NBC does not adequately profile foreign athletes, and I made it clear that in my memory I could not recall seeing a national anthem other than ours played; after all, no one can watch every one of the hundreds of hours of prime-time coverage. Still, I took Costas at his word that even if the network sometimes falls prey to the siren song of John Philip Sousa, he makes an effort to retain the international imprimatur of the occasion. I also told him that I understood the network would slant to the Americans—it’s an American audience—but that I was trying to address a larger issue, which was that basically we have degenerated into loutish fans who care not about any Herculean exploits of athleticism or finesse—to quote the late Jim McKay, “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat”—but only the medal count. In other words, there seems to be a U.S. groupthink that has evolved to say, If we aren’t winning gold, what’s the point of paying attention? That’s not the Olympic spirit.
To my surprise, he agreed with me, and sounded almost as weary of it as I am. “I think it isn’t just in the Olympics, but it’s writ large of the Olympics,” he said. (A quick aside: Can you imagine Terry Bradshaw uttering that sentence?) “I think even in the tone, which dismays me, when the Yankees play the Red Sox, there’s an angry tone. I don’t want to be outside of Fenway Park and see a 10-year-old kid wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Jeter sucks.’ That’s not what sports is.”
No, it isn’t. Costas went on to tell me he is an avid opponent of what he calls “buffoonish exhibitionism” in sports, which, reading between the lines, I took to mean he has little time for the Terrell Owenses and Chad Ochocincos, hams whose theatrics have always overshadowed their performances. That goes for us, the viewers, too. “I would be just about the last person who would revel in Americans just sticking it in someone else’s face,” he told me.
Still, there’s no denying that the Olympics is not just the Olympics anymore. It’s a worldwide television event, one that spans more than two weeks, and which carries with it a billion-dollar price tag and all of the expectations that go with that. Intellectually, I understand why NBC and its platoon of affiliate networks must beat the drum for the U.S., even if I wish they wouldn’t do it quite so often. But more than that, I wish we as Americans didn’t want them to. Costas says he has always felt there was legitimate drama to be found at any Olympics, either in competition itself or in the back stories of the athletes, but he bristles when that drama is manipulated or heightened, the People Magazine-ing of the Games. “There are times when it’s kind of an uneasy position to be in,” he admits. “But at the same time, I sit in the chair and I cash the checks, and a good deal of what we do I am quite proud of.”
So I told him the only thing it seemed fair to tell him—that I would go back on my pledge, that after talking with him I would watch the Games. But, I joked (well, half-joked), that I was going to be watching nightly, waiting to hear that national anthem from France or China or Belarus. And if I didn’t hear that, he was going to hear from me. “I’m on notice,” he laughed.
And at a moment where Americans could really benefit from showing some class, so are we.