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Bob Costas could have done more Monday to help Mark McGwire — and sports broadcasting

It has been nearly five years since champion home run hitter Mark McGwire bungled his testimony before Congress badly enough that everyone assumed what he would not address:

That he used steroids while setting his record of 70 home runs in a single season in 1998.

So what may be most surprising about the way broadcasters covered McGwire’s long-overdue confirmation of that assumption Monday was the anger.

It seemed starkest, not on sports television, but at the beginning of anchor Brian Williams’ Monday telecast of NBC Nightly News. Williams, known for his scrupulous, almost old-school approach to journalism at times, let his bruised feelings fly like Walter Cronkite pronouncing a quagmire in Vietnam.

“Because this is a family broadcast, we probably can’t say what we’d like to about the news today that Mark McGwire—the home run hitter, the family favorite from the St. Louis Cardinals—stopped lying today and admitted that he did it while on steroids….He didn’t tell the truth to Congress or to his fans until finally, formally coming clean today. He’s been unable to get into the Hall of Fame and, apparently—even for him—the shame here was too much.”

But that anger was surprisingly absent from the one forum where McGwire might address it directly; a live, hourlong interview with pro interrogator Bob Costas Monday night on the MLB Network.

Faced with an emotional McGwire, who was often near tears in talking about how he came clean in phone calls to coach Tony LaRussa and the widow of the former home run champion Roger Maris, Costas gently probed the former champion over an admission sports journalists already had been fuming about for hours.

Once again, McGwire whiffed the pitch, refusing to admit that steroids may have helped his performance as an athlete, insisting only that he took the substances to rebound better from injuries.

Likewise, he denied claims by onetime teammate Jose Canseco that they injected each other in the clubhouse before games.

Worst of all, for an athlete whose skill, talent, determination and hard work were once presumed great enough to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

He blamed the era.

“I wish we never played in that (steroid) era,” McGwire said, sounding like a man grasping at any straw to justify his bad choices, except his own actions. “I wish we had drug testing.”

Here is where Costas could have helped McGwire and sports broadcasting in general – refusing at long last to accept the peculiar and powerful sort of denial pro athletes often employ.

He could have reminded McGwire that they call steroids and human growth hormone – which he also admitted using – “performance-enhancing substances” for a reason. He could have noted that sticking to your values means making choices which cost you, just to do the right thing.

Yes, it’s tough to push a man, especially someone you once greatly admired, when he seems to be at the end of a very short rope.

But what the reactions of other broadcasters highlighted Monday was an important truth. This isn’t just about McGwire; as much as he wanted it to be on Monday night.

This is about team owners and broadcasters and TV channels and fans, who lapped up the home run derbys kicked off by suddenly-buff powerhouses such as McGwire, Canseco and Barry Bonds, barely pausing to ask with determination: How did this happen?

How does a guy like McGwire hit better in his mid-30s than ever before? How does a relatively trim guy like Bonds suddenly pack on pounds like someone stuck a bicycle pump in his mouth?

How does a hitter fess up to misleading his coach, his fans, Congress and the sports world about using steroids but not admit that they helped him play better? How is that not more of the same denial which cost him his reputation in 2005?

If only Costas had channeled some of that passion into his questions Monday night, McGwire might have avoided a bit of the criticism from sports pundits dissecting his performance just after the interview.

Ken Rosenthal from the MLB Network Insider may have put it most bluntly, just after the interview ended. “It’s difficult for the truth to set you free, when you’re still living a lie,” he said. “(McGwire) helped create this era.”

Elements of this dance may feel familiar to fans who watched Michael Vick return to football after his dogfighting conviction and incarceration. These days, it almost feels like a formula for an athlete caught in wrongdoing: You make the emotional public statement, you do the searingly high profile interview and you move on.

Now, McGwire wants to move on, into a job as hitting coach for the Cardinals. And some broadcast pundits seem inclined to let him.

Indeed, as emotionally as some analysts challenged McGwire’s words just after the interview during the MLB Network’s coverage, they seemed to get over their anger before the post-interview show had even ended — the cycle of blame and anger nearly complete.

“It may be time to move on,” said Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, who began the show criticizing McGwire’s inability to admit everything he’d done wrong.

Perhaps. But there may still be a feeling that, somehow, McGwire didn’t face the full truth of his actions. And some in the media may have helped him dodge a few of the largest bullets.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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