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Costas’ gun control remarks highlight sports broadcasting quandary

As a columnist, I like nothing more than pushing the bounds of what people expect me to say just short of sticking a well-worn dress shoe in my mouth.

So I have loads of admiration for NBC sports anchor Bob Costas on his gutsy answer to the question, “Should a sports anchor talk about a thorny social issue in the middle of a football game?”

When that answer is “Hell yes,” then I’m all in.

Costas has drawn the ire of football fans across the Twittersphere and beyond for daring to read the words of Kansas City-based Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who wrote a powerful piece on the tragedy of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killing himself after murdering his girlfriend and the mother of his child Saturday morning.

“You want some actual perspective on this?” Costas asked during the halftime segment in NBC’s telecast of Sunday’s Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles game. He then read some of Whitlock’s words: “Our current gun culture…ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy.”

Conservative commentators seemed particularly upset by Costas’ remarks, with former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain calling the commentary “sanctimonious dreck” on Twitter while columnist Michelle Malkin posted that “Costas hijacks Sunday Night Football to give anti-gun lecture.”

But, much as I admired his stand, I was also interested in what Costas didn’t say.

He didn’t note, for example, that a larger share of Whitlock’s column was about a slightly different subject: The NFL’s decision to tell the Carolina Panthers to travel to Kansas City as planned Sunday, setting up the situation where they would play a game just one day after a starting linebacker there killed two people.

Whitlock’s column began with the line “Football is embarrassingly tone deaf.” Seven paragraphs in, he really got going, writing “Football is our God. Its exaggerated value in our society has never been more evident than Saturday morning in my adopted hometown. There’s just no way this game should be played.”

If Costas really wanted to make a statement, he could have talked about that part of Whitlock’s column, which consumed about three quarters of a 20 paragraph column. In an odd way, the sports anchor’s focus on the tail end of the column confirmed Whitlock’s words: Can anyone expect an NBC Sports anchor to note criticism of the NFL during a game currently underway?

I’ll admit, this is a sore subject for me. My first column for this space in 2009 talked about NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast of the inaugural game at the Dallas Cowboys’ $1.2-billion football stadium, which mostly left unmentioned lots of serious questions about the facility.

Sour notes like the high cost of food in the stadium, tax increases levied to pay for its construction and fans who wound up paying $29 for standing-room-only tickets were not mentioned in the broadcast.

This, I have often argued, is the biggest problem with having news outlets that also present entertainment programs such as sporting events, a’la ESPN.

What hat is worn by a personality like Bob Costas – who acts as a journalist when interviewing Jerry Sandusky but a TV host when helming the halftime segment – when there’s a newsy issues connected to the game itself?

When I expressed this opinion during a radio show this morning, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who disclosed often she was a friend and colleague of Costas, said his commentary wasn’t a “book report” on Whitlock’s column.

Her point was valid: many other people had criticized the decision to play the game, the contest was already underway, and Costas raised important issues about gun control in the context of sports.

But for all the criticism he’s getting about saying something controversial off the topic of football, I wonder how free Costas really is to say something controversial within the world of football during a telecast.

It might just be that taking on the NRA is easier than taking on the NFL, at least if you work for NBC Sports.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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