When Kansas City Chiefs Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his child Kasandra Perkins and then committed suicide in front of his coach on Saturday, most of Sunday’s NFL coverage avoided direct commentary. Bob Costas did not. The veteran NBC sports broadcaster used 90 seconds at halftime of NBC’s top rated Sunday Night Football program to talk about "perspective" and, quoting a column by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, the problems with the “gun culture” in the United States. This ignited the fury of the right wing some of whom have called for his job. Then after appearances on The Dan Patrick Show and The O'Reilly Factor there are now liberals who believe Costas is backtracking from his earlier remarks. I spoke to Bob Costas this morning to set the record straight.
Dave Zirin: Do you have any regrets about your halftime commentary?
Bob Costas: Only that in this instance I had even less time than I usually do and it’s a complex issue that definitely involves domestic violence, possibly involves the football culture, possibly involves drugs and alcohol, and also obviously involves guns. I’m mystified by those who say that pointing out that the easy access to handguns and the existence of a gun culture makes tragedies like this more likely, somehow means you are shifting the blame from Jovan Belcher to the gun. That’s crazy. Belcher is 100% responsible and I have said that I was appalled that in the early stages of coverage of this tragedy many played it as if there were two victims and Belcher was one of them. No. He is the perpetrator and nothing diminishes that. But his having the gun made it more likely that something like this would occur. The fact that I didn’t have enough time to cite all of these factors – from the culture of football to Belcher’s personal responsibility – allows some people to claim that I was saying guns are the only issue. I emphatically do not think that. If I’d had even 45 seconds to a minute more, I could have dotted more I’s and crossed more Ts.
DZ: What many are saying is that it “wasn’t the right forum” for this discussion. Do you feel it was the right forum?
BC: I’d say close to 100% of those who feel that way do so simply because they disagree and didn’t want to hear the particular thing I had to say. If I said something they agreed with then they wouldn’t have any problems. All day, with varying degrees of insight, all four networks that carried football covered this story at some length. The preceding five minutes on our air was on this story and this story only. The only time anyone seems to think that was inappropriate was when I pushed this particular hot button. I would point out the obvious: that it was halftime. Not a single play was missed. Had this murder suicide not involved an NFL player, then it would not have been an appropriate topic for any of us to discuss in a football broadcast. But since it did, it became an appropriate topic. Look at it this way: I felt it was appropriate for me to discuss the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972 during the Olympic opening ceremonies. There was an issue there about the IOC’s refusal to officially recognize the 40th anniversary. Therefore whether other broadcasters would have done it or not, I felt that I should. On the other hand, if I had brought it up on the air in a different context, it would have made no sense and would have been inappropriate. If next week out of the blue, I start talking about Gays in sports at halftime of the football game, that’s inappropriate even if the comments are insightful. But if and when an NFL player comes out as Gay then there is a story there that provides a jumping off point. Then it would be entirely appropriate.
DZ: Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote that now you are backtracking from your comments. Are you?
BC: No I am not backtracking at all. I stand by what I said. To expand upon your thoughts when you have more time to do so or to clarify if you feel you have been misunderstood is not the same as backtracking.
DZ: Why did you choose to speak about guns and gun culture and not about the NFL itself, perhaps about the wisdom of even playing the Chiefs-Panthers game just 24 hours after the murder suicide or to speak about the linkage between concussions and the four suicides among current and former players that have taken place in the last year?
BC: As for the NFL and the Chiefs’ decision to go ahead with the game, I was alright with that because I assumed it was based on the stated preference of the coaches and the majority of their players to go ahead. In this case, I think they would be the best judges. As for other aspects of football that may have played a role here, I have spoken often, including at halftime of Sunday night games about the violent nature of the NFL, about the concussion issue, and about other problems the NFL faces. I have no reluctance to do that and will do it again when appropriate. In this case, just 36 hours after the shootings, not enough was known about Belcher’s background to assume that this could be attributed to head trauma, drug abuse, etc. so the best I could do there was to say as I did that in the days ahead, questions will be raised about his actions and their possible connections to football. I felt that I indicated given the brief time I had that as the story developed it was entirely possible that there could be a linkage to football and some aspects of the football culture as we have seen with others but at that point it wasn’t possible to make that leap. What Whitlock wrote about the gun culture especially among young athletes seemed credible to me and an issue worth raising. As I said to you earlier, I only wish I hadn’t raised it in isolation. I believe it’s true. I believe it’s important but I do not believe it’s the only important aspect of the story.
DZ: You appeared last night on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. There are people on Fox and in that right wing noise machine who have compared you to Don Imus or Hank Williams, Jr. and said you should lose your job. How do you respond to this?
BC: Don Imus called the women on the Rutgers basketball team, “nappy headed hos”. Hank Williams, Jr. compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler. I said that there is a gun culture in America that leads to tragedy. Anybody who thinks that the third comment falls in the same category as the first two doesn’t want to have a serious discussion about any of this. Sometimes, the best affirmation of your decisions and beliefs is the quality of thinking of those who oppose you. I’m not dismissing everyone who disagrees with what I have said and I certainly respect those who have reasoned disagreements. But one question I would pose is this: “Even if obtained legally, can’t people see what a volatile mix guns, in some cases medications, in some cases head trauma, and certainly a culture that romanticizes and to some extent legitimizes guns and violence can be when mixed together? These are questions that should be raised. And I plan to continue raising them.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the SportsWorld Upside Down” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].