In the weeks leading up the Super Bowl, I predicted that we would see a rise in stories unfavorable to football as the big game approached. That was certainly the case.
However, in the days since, the drumbeat has continued, particularly with one story published on the ESPN website, that was accompanied by a companion piece initially broadcast on Sunday during an “Outside the Lines” segment of the network’s E:60 program.
Written and reported by ESPN staff writer Mark Fainaru-Wada, both stories tell “How Bob Costas ‘crossed the line’ and ended up out of the Super Bowl,” unplugged, so to speak, by NBC.
The reason NBC Sports executives silenced their 40-year front man? According to Costas, the final straw — he had been critical of football on Sunday Night Football for years — came at a journalism conference in November 2017 at the University of Maryland, an ironic location given what has transpired with the football program there in the last year.
During the symposium, Costas said, “This game destroys people’s brains — not everyone's, but a substantial number.”
To which an NBC executive apparently replied to Costas in a text, “You’ve crossed the line.”
Soon after, he was told he was off the Super Bowl LII pregame broadcast team.
More recently, just last month, Costas told the New York Post that he and NBC had mutually and amicably agreed to part ways entirely.
At age 66, though, Costas is not done broadcasting. He plans to continue doing baseball games on the MLB Network — which brings us to the issue of other sports and head injuries.
Costas has a history not only of broadcasting baseball, but hockey and boxing, too. Where are he and his prominent colleagues when it comes to the issue of head trauma in those sports, as well as soccer and wrestling?
Head injuries are not just a football issue; they are a contact and collision sport issue, even in Costas’ beloved baseball. Repeated concussions have ended the careers of numerous catchers and umpires.
Furthermore in football, the projectile with which the game is played is not nearly as dangerous to players and fans as a hockey puck or a baseball.
In August of last year, Linda Goldbloom, 79, died four days after being struck in the head by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium. Remarkably, the Dodgers were able to keep the tragedy quiet until Outside the Lines broke the story just last week. It was the first death of a fan struck by a ball at an MLB stadium in almost 50 years. However, serious injuries caused by foul balls occur in significant numbers annually.
The NHL decisively addressed the same danger after Brittanie Cecil, 13, was struck in the left temple by a deflected hockey puck in March 2002 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Cecil died two days later. Three months after that, the NHL mandated protective netting behind the goals that would extend about 18 feet high. Since then, injuries have been reduced but not eliminated and there have been no deaths.
After several high-profile injuries to fans, MLB recommended that their teams extend protective netting to the far end of both dugouts for the 2018 season. All 30 complied with the guidelines, including the Dodgers. Unfortunately, the netting did not extend high enough for Mrs. Goldbloom, who was behind home plate, seated in the lowest level not protected by the netting.
Had she been at a game in Japan, she would have been. There, fans at professional games are screened all the way out to the foul poles.
As for the head safety of baseball players, rule changes have reduced collisions on the base paths and at home plate and batters’ helmets have been improved to better absorb the force from an errant pitch. Yet, nothing has been done to better protect pitchers, catchers and umpires from line drives and foul tips.
Hockey, at the college level, has barred fighting and requires full-cage facemasks. The NHL would do well to imitate those rules.
Soccer has banned the header for players age 10 and younger. The rule should apply to all levels. It would eliminate at least a third of concussions and, more importantly, the sub-concussive trauma that comes with practicing the maneuver.
Football, at all levels, has made rule changes that penalize intentional contact with the head, limited practice time during which contact is allowed and either eliminated or severely limited kickoffs in a game — the play during which a disproportionate share of concussions occur.
In the NFL, the rule changes seem to have had a beneficial effect, at least in 2018, with reported concussions down 23.8 percent compared to 2017 — when they reached an all-time high.
At the high school level, one state is leading the way in dealing with concussions and significantly reducing the number of all injuries suffered by interscholastic athletes. More on that next week.