Reimer: NFL allegedly pushing Bob Costas out at NBC shows it has power to bend entire sports TV world to its whims

Alex Reimer
February 11, 2019 - 1:07 pm

The NFL is the most valuable property in television and there isn’t a close second. NFL games accounted for 46 of the 50 most-watched shows on TV last season and ratings increased five-percent over the previous year. Though the NFL has always been a ratings juggernaut, it’s never been more dominant than it is now, because it’s the only product large numbers of people still watch live with any regularity. 

That kind of bargaining power creates incredible leverage, which the NFL allegedly wields to soften critical coverage from its broadcast partners. Bob Costas says the power of the shield is the reason he was abruptly removed from NBC’s Super Bowl coverage last season and ultimately parted ways with his network of 40 years. In a lengthy interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Costas says he was pulled from the Super Bowl following a series of public statements about the direct correlation between football and head trauma. 

It is a maddening revelation, leading sports journalists across the country to rightfully lambast the NFL for its apparent vindictiveness –– and spread warnings about the potential consequences. “Bob Costas is one of the most respected broadcasters in the business,” tweeted former ESPN journalist Jane McManus. “Read this, and then ask what we lose when networks and leagues want a non-stop celebration of sports. Or else.”

But as we know, Twitter outrage seldom generates any tangible business impact. The NFL pocketed more than $7 billion in TV revenue this season and the figure could skyrocket to $17 billion by 2027, according to the sports analytics firm Navigate Research. Costas’ tale of woe won’t drive people away from the game. In terms of NFL scandals, it doesn’t even register.

With that callous truth in mind, it’s surprising the NFL doesn’t try to clamp down on negative coverage even more. That’s the biggest takeaway from the Costas interview, which was published on ESPN, a network that pays the league $1.9 billion annually to broadcast “Monday Night Football.”

Costas made disparaging comments about the NFL’s negligence on concussions years before his bosses at NBC acted. It is one of his moral crusades, right up there with decrying steroid use in baseball. He says the final straw came in November 2017, when he opined on the connection between football and brain damage three times in a one-week span. Most notably, Costas told an audience at the University of Maryland the game “destroys people’s brains.”

The following month, with the “Concussion” movie set to debut in theaters over Christmastime, Costas says he submitted an essay about the game’s head trauma crisis to be read during halftime of “Sunday Night Football.” The suits at NBC rejected the monologue. 

Around that time, Costas was taken off the Super Bowl coverage, with NBC sports executive producer Sam Flood telling him he “crossed the line” and wasn’t the right person to celebrate football. Costas says he agreed with the decision at the time.

"I recall the phrase, 'It's a six-hour, daylong celebration of football, and you're not the right person to celebrate football,'" Costas told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada. ”To which my response was not, 'Oh please, please, change your mind.' My response was, 'Yeah, I guess you're right.’"

In an attempt to remain involved, Costas proposed a Super Bowl interview with Roger Goodell, which the league rejected. He exited NBC months later.

There have been other reported examples of the NFL meddling in the affairs of its TV partners, such as pushing ESPN to end its “Playmakers” reality series in the early aughts and allegedly pushing Sean McDonough, who occasionally criticized lousy officiating, out of the MNF booth. In return, ESPN plugged in league sycophant Joe Tessitore to take McDonough’s place. Ratings were up eight percent this year, showing once and for all that announcers have no impact on viewership.

Chasing Costas from NBC, which is the obvious insinuation in the interview, would qualify as the NFL’s biggest known power play to date. But given Costas’ long history of speaking out about the concussion issue, and the lack of consequences for said power play, it’s interesting the NFL permitted him to remain as the host of SNF for as long as it did. The league could’ve expressed its displeasure years ago, and the outrage would’ve been fleeting. It certainly wouldn’t have caused audiences to turn away from a late-season primetime matchup involving Tom Brady. That’s for sure. 

New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro reportedly wants to rebuild the network’s damaged relationship with the NFL. But for all of that talk, MNF analysts Booger McFarland and Jason Witten still occasionally took the league to task on polarizing issues, such as domestic violence. Witten railed against the Redskins for signing alleged serial domestic abuser Reuben Foster during a December telecast.

In addition, “Outside the Lines” continues to produce disparaging stories about the NFL, including the Costas manifesto. You could argue OTL is buried on ESPN, much like Witten’s condemnation of the Redskins was buried in the fourth quarter of a non-compelling game, and you would be right. But here’s the thing: the NFL doesn’t have to allow any dissent at all. If it wanted, it could turn every TV partner into the NFL Network. There would be cries about the importance of journalistic integrity, but ultimately, most of the league’s broadcasters would probably capitulate. And if they didn’t, there would be other buyers. The ratings are too good to pass up.

The NFL's horrid reputation would take another major hit, but the league has already survived all-encompassing controversies from not caring about domestic violence to lying to its players about concussions. It's hard to imagine an edict that would curtail Seth Wickersham's work at ESPN would topple the league. 

That dim reality presents a scary forecast for the sports media world, which is already overrun with league- and team-owned media outlets. The NFL has no reason to let up. If it could push Costas out at NBC, nobody is safe.