February 26, 2019

When Our Values Run Counter To Our Employer

As sportscasters go, Bob Costas is legendary.

Be it basketball, golf, hockey, NASCAR, the Olympics or his beloved baseball, Costas has reported on, commentated over and anchored sporting events since 1973. Much of his multi-Emmy award-winning tenure came through the camera lenses of NBC.

That role came to an abrupt end in January. After 38 years at the network, Costas and NBC severed ties. According to Costas, it was amicable.

The reason? Football, specifically the National Football League (NFL) and its negligence on the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) file. The weak side counter question I’d like to raise concerns the topic of values, specifically that of Costas, NBC and the NFL.

Throughout the years, Costas used his platform on NBC to highlight the growing concern of concussions and traumatic brain injuries. I suppose his employer simply put up with his commentary even though the NFL was arguably NBC Sports’ most important partner.

That is until it became too much when the desire for profit eclipsed values.

In a brilliant 5600-word investigative journalism piece, ESPN Staff Writer Mark Fainaru-Wada detailed Costas’s slow yet inevitable fallout with his bosses at NBC.

During the many interviews that Fainaru-Wada conducted with him for the piece, Costas indicated that his relationship with football began to spoil decades ago. “As I got closer and closer to the game, I became ambivalent about it,” Costas said. “The sheer violence of the game, and then the celebration of that violence, even before CTE became a specific issue . . . I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. That felt stupid to me.”

Costas’s reflection referred to the period in and around 1993.

When NBC lost the rights to NFL broadcasts in 1997 to CBS, it ensured Costas would not have to question his values. I imagine it was difficult for Costas to tow the party line—what with the NFL being such an expensive property for NBC—but without broadcasting rights, neither Costas nor NBC would be alienating anyone at the NFL as it pertained to Costas’s growing displeasure with the sport.

NBC was without the rights to NFL broadcasts between 1997 and 2005. No harm, no foul.

When NBC decided it could not live without the NFL, in 2005 it won the first of several multi-year broadcasting contracts. The NFL was back on NBC.

This would have been a good time for Costas to further shine a light on his disapproval with the NFL. He could have refused to work on the NFL broadcasts. Instead, he said yes to NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol’s request to have him back on the NFL broadcasts “out of loyalty” and “as kind of a good soldier.”

For the ensuing decade, Costas would be the prime host of NBC’s NFL coverage. He would occasionally outline his displeasure with the NFL’s ambivalence to head trauma. Again, his employer seemed to let him speak his mind while the NFL remained silent.

All of that changed in late 2015. After viewing a screening of the Will Smith film, Concussion—based on the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who truly started the NFL’s concussion crisis—Costas penned a damning essay about the NFL’s CTE controversy, to be read aloud at the beginning of NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast.

The essay never made it to air. NBC Sports’ senior leadership team nixed the prose, telling Costas it would upset the NFL and potentially jeopardize contract negotiations.

In the interview with Fainaru-Wada, Costas said, “It was at that point that I realized that this was an untenable situation for me. I knew my days there were numbered.”

Two years later, Costas appeared at a journalism symposium at the University of Maryland where he said, “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains — not everyone’s, but a substantial number. It’s not a small number, it’s a considerable number. It destroys their brains.”

It was at this point when an NBC executive said Costas had crossed a line. Roughly a year later, Costas was out, and his storied career at NBC was over.

The question now comes back to values.

NBC is in the game of revenues and profits. Its sports division negotiates partnerships with all sorts of different sports. It has many competitors. There is still a question of values and ethics. NBC has to ask itself if it wants to operate with the NFL knowing full well the product (the game of football) is literally killing the main pipeline of entertainers. (i.e. the NFL athletes)

And then there is the NFL. Where do the values and ethics of the NFL owners and senior league officials sit when it too knows that CTE is a death sentence for its employees? A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found CTE in 99 percent of the brains obtained from NFL players.

And finally there is Bob Costas, and the lesson we all can learn from his sharing of the experience.

I’ve always loved Costas, his voice, depth and breadth of knowledge, let alone his willingness to dig into the problems of sport be it the Olympics’ bribes or the Major League Baseball steroid crisis.

I do wonder what happened in 2005.

Did Costas use the opportunity to return to the NFL hosting desk on NBC because he was contractually obligated to do so? Did he return knowing he might have a chance to help change the narrative of the NFL’s brain injury predicament?

Or, did Costas return to the desk for the fabulous paycheck?

I hope he did so not for the money or out of obligation, but that he felt he could have made a difference. Perhaps he has.

Whether we look at NBC, the NFL or Costas, each of us must ask ourselves how we want to operate in the business world. Who are our allies? What do we want to ultimately accomplish? Perhaps most importantly, how do we want to be known when we leave a room?

In the context of making money—personally or organizationally—I find many decisions get made not based on our values but on what is convenient to ensure a means to an end.

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