Sportscaster Bob Costas joined former Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and USA Today columnist Christine Brennan at the University of Maryland’s 12th Shirley Povich Symposium on Tuesday for a discussion about the biggest changes in sports since Costas was a guest at the first symposium in 2003. During the course of the evening, Costas and his fellow panelists all touched on something that would’ve been difficult to imagine 14 years ago: a future without football.
“There are issues, including, although it’s a serious issue, the protests going on now in the NFL,” Costas said. “Those issues come and go. The issue that is most substantial — the existential issue — is the nature of football itself. … The nature of football is this: Unless and until there is some technology which we cannot even imagine, let alone has been developed, that would make this inherently dangerous game not marginally safer, but acceptably safe, the cracks in the foundation are there. The day-to-day issues, serious as they may be, they may come and go. But you cannot change the basic nature of the game. I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football.”
Costas, who recalled his father taking him to the 1962 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, rejected those who are quick to dismiss football’s concussion crisis as part of a “left-wing conspiracy to undermine something that is quintessentially American.”
“The truth is the truth,” Costas said, referencing the memoir “Truth Doesn’t Have a Side” by Bennet Omalu, the researcher credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster in 2002. “Some of the best people I’ve met in sports have been football people, but the reality is that this game destroys people’s brains. … That’s the fundamental fact of football, and that to me is the biggest story in American sports.”
Kornheiser suggested that football will eventually go the way of horse racing and boxing, two other sports that were once wildly popular.
“It’s not going to happen this year, and it’s not going to happen in five years or 10 years, but Bob is right: At some point, the cultural wheel turns just a little bit, almost imperceptibly, and parents say, ‘I don’t want my kid to play.’ And then it becomes only the province of the poor, who want it for economic reasons to get up and out, and if they don’t find a way to make it safe — and we don’t see how they will — as great as it is, as much fun as it is … the game’s not going to be around. It’s not.”
Wilbon, Kornheiser’s longtime co-host on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” said people need look no further than the independent studies that have come out about what playing football does to the brain. Costas agreed.
“They keep saying, ‘We need more information. More and more information will become available,’ ” Costas said. “Yes, it will, and it won’t be good for football. The more information comes out, the worse it looks. What we know is that brain trauma, the younger the person is, the worse it is because the brain isn’t fully developed until your mid-20s, especially the pre-frontal cortex. And the longer you play tackle football, the more cumulative hits, in addition to the disproportionate impact on a young person, leads you to the common-sense conclusion that if you’re going to play tackle football, you shouldn’t play tackle football at all until you’re 18 years old, at a minimum. But then, where is the talent pool for college? What happens to college football? The whole thing could collapse like a house of cards if people actually begin connecting the dots.”
During the question-and-answer session that followed the discussion, which was hosted by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism and moderated by Maury Povich, Wilbon and Costas expressed doubts that free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s grievance accusing NFL teams of colluding to keep him out of the league will be successful. Nevertheless, Brennan, a former sportswriter at The Post, said kids will study Kaepernick in history classes in 20 to 40 years for his decision to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
“Donald Trump ensured that when he crash-landed into this story in Huntsville, Alabama, at the end of September, and tried to divide the nation and he brought it right back to the surface,” Brennan said. “I think maybe some good things are going to come out of it, not so much for Kaepernick, but in terms of community involvement and the way the league is looking at these issues now. And as I said, I think he will be studied the way we look at Curt Flood, the way we look, obviously, at people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson, as a major player in our cultural, social history because of this episode in the last year-and-a-half.”
Costas said Kaepernick doesn’t rise to the same “level of transcendence” as those names.
“I think we ought to be able to make distinctions without people thinking that you’re not in sympathy with the basic issue,” Costas said. “What Colin Kaepernick started is about a real issue, and Colin Kaepernick himself has walked the walk, and every time I’ve ever talked about him I’ve said that. He’s involved in the community, he’s raised money, he’s taken his own money, I think his intentions are good. I think you’re allowed to say, however, because you’re allowed to look at each situation differently, that he’s not the natural heir to Muhammad Ali, or to Curt Flood, or to Arthur Ashe, because he’s not equipped. He’s gone radio silent, and when he does speak, he often says things that undermine his position.”
“Like, ‘I didn’t vote,’ ” Wilbon interjected.
“So I guess it didn’t matter that Barack Obama used to be president and now somebody else is president, or you show up with socks that depict cops as pigs,” Costas continued. “Well, that ain’t true of most, let alone all, cops. We can make distinctions. We can praise him and respect him for the good he’s done, but not say that, hey, Muhammad Ali figuratively is handing the torch to him. To Doug Baldwin? Yeah. To Anquan Boldin? Maybe. To Malcolm Jenkins? Maybe. And throw a few white guys in for God’s sake. That would be good if they stood up and stood shoulder to shoulder, not just with a hand on the shoulder, but had something to say.”
“You lose me as a 58-year-old black man in America when you say I didn’t vote and you didn’t recognize any distinction between the two candidates,” Wilbon said. “Lost me. When you are a quarterback, or even a former quarterback in the NFL, black, white or otherwise, look at the platform you have. My God, you can get on any TV show in the world on Sunday. Shoulder to shoulder, every set has at least three of ’em. So you have this platform and you don’t use it, you don’t know how to use it, you’re quiet, you’re not particularly eloquent on the issue. Michael Bennett said more in about an hour after determining what his agenda was than Kaepernick has the entire six, eight months. … I admire what he did, but he is not an ideal messenger.”
More from The Post: