Howard Cosell was a legendary sports announcer—but anyone familiar with his career knows that he always felt limited by covering sports. Mr. Cosell viewed himself as a Voice of Social Conscience. He believed athletics was generally too trivial for his attention. His ambition was to become the anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight”—and he contemplated a run for the Senate. By the end of his life, Cosell turned on sports and became a bitter man.
I thought about Cosell after listening to NBC’s Bob Costas deliver his anti-handgun commentary at halftime of Sunday night’s Eagles-Cowboys game.
Mr. Costas could have set aside a moment of silence during the broadcast to remember those who died (as Costas did during the London Olympics, as a way to honor the Israeli coaches and athletes who were killed in the Munich Olympics 40 years ago). Instead Mr. Costas, in addressing the apparent murder-suicide by the Kansas City Chief’s Jovan Belcher (Belcher killed the mother of his young daughter before killing himself), blasted those who used “that most mindless of sports clichés … Something like this really puts it all in perspective.” Costas went on to say that “those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective.”
America’s philosopher-sports commentator then pointed us to the fountain of wisdom on the murder-suicide—the Kansas City-based writer Jason Whitlock. Costas, in quoting portions of Whitlock’s column, said this:
Our current gun culture ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it. In the coming days, Jovan Belcher’s actions, and their possible connection to football will be analyzed. Who knows? But here is what I believe. If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.
Mr. Whitlock, of course, has no idea if that’s true or not. Jovan Belcher could have killed Ms. Perkins some other way—and arguably if she had a gun, Perkins could have preserved her own life and her daughter would not now be an orphan. To the degree that we heard mindless clichés, then, it was when Costas quoted Whitlock.
But my point here isn’t to debate the merits of gun control (an issue on which I don’t have particularly strong feelings). It’s to point out a couple of other things.
The first is that both Costas and Whitlock, in commenting on the murder-suicide, focused on handguns rather than on the man who ruthlessly killed the mother of his daughter before killing himself. It tells you a very great deal when the moral outrage is directed not at the killer but at the weapon.
Beyond that, though, is that Costas seems to be suffering from the early stages of Cosell-ism—the belief that Americans are longing for Costas to use his perch as a sports commentator to offer social commentary. In fact, we’re not. There are plenty of other places we can turn to if we want to hear supercilious and shallow critiques on public policy matters. Most of us don’t believe the host of a sporting event has any particular wisdom to offer us on social policy in the wake of a brutal murder-suicide. And Sunday night, Bob Costas proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. If he wants to play Bill Moyers, then Costas should host his own program on PBS rather than hijack an NFL halftime show.