Bob Costas is very, very silly man. The pro football world is still reeling from the tragedy in Kansas City, where 25-year-old Chiefs' linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their infant child, and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and shot and killed himself in front of his coach and his general manager. Costas is the dean of NBC Sports, and so at halftime of Sunday Night Football, the top-rated show on U.S. TV, he was granted some 90 seconds to talk about the tragedy, which -- in case you've already forgotten -- involved a man killing his girlfriend with a gun and killing himself with a gun.
Amazingly, Costas choose this occasion to talk about... guns.
Actually, I didn't watch it live, and so at first I didn't realize that Costas had said the G-word on live TV. Instead, I started seeing the reaction on Twitter, and judging from the comments, I thought Costas must have made a joke about the Pope having gay sex with the Dalai Lama, during a two-hour Fidel Castro-style harangue, because that was the level of vitriol that was burning up my computer screen Sunday night.
So what type of crazy, farting-in-the-church-of-pro-football thing did Costas actually say?
Those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports, would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective. You want some actual perspective on this? Well a bit of it comes from the Kansas City-based writer Jason Whitlock, with whom I do not always agree, but, who today, said it so well that we may as well just quote or paraphrase from the end of his article. "Our current gun culture," Whitlock wrote, "ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it. In the coming days, Jovan Belcher's actions, (and its possible connection to football), will be analyzed. Who knows? But here, (wrote Jason Whitlock) is what I believe, If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."
That was it. There was no call to take people's guns, or repeal the 2nd Amendment, not even a plea for anything mildly specific like limiting the number of guns a person can purchase each month or seeking background checks at gun shows. Just a discussion meant to start a discussion, beginning with this notion that maybe a nation that has some of the least stringent gun laws on the world and also has the highest rates of gun violence among industrial nations... by far... should take a closer look at the problem.
For that, Bob Costas was all but crucified. You can read the comments on a conservative, gun-friendly site like Free Republic, where the veteran sportscaster is called "ridiculous," "a pompous little jerk" and "a disgusting leftist midget," among the comments I can print. (The discussion thread is headlined "Vanity," a consistent theme, that the only reason one would want to talk about gun violence is to call attention to himself.) The chatter on Twitter, from the famous or non-famous, were only slightly better. Some disagreed with what Costas said -- all fine and good -- but many more were outraged that he raised the subject, even during a block in which he delivers commentary every week.
The worst of the worst, in my opinion, was a pretend journalist for Deadspin named Sean Newell who was so delighted to see the formation of a torches-and-pitchforks crowd on the Internet that he raced as fast as he could to get to the front of it -- the better to get tons of traffic for his website by attacking Costas and his "sanctimonious horse(bleep)."
The courageous Newell wrote that the murder and suicide was "sad and abhorrent"...
But it is only relevant, unfortunately, to many of us because he is an athlete. So how does the team react? Will they mourn him? Honor him? Is that appropriate? How will media paint the picture? These are all interesting questions to expose to a national audience. Instead the day ended with just another angry old guy yelling from his porch.
There you have it, America. How the (2-10, for what it's worth) Kansas City Chiefs react to a young woman's murder is "important." Gun culture, not important.
Bob Costas broke the fundamental rule of American discourse: Not knowing when or where it's appropriate to talk about guns. Rule No. 1: It's completely inappropriate to discuss the gun issue within 48 -- no, actually make that 72 hours after any kind of high-profile use of guns. This was the point that Brian Kilmeade made so astutely this morning on Fox & Friends, when he said:
I just don't know if it's appropriate enough on a Sunday night, less than 24 hours after the guy took his own life and killed his girlfriend, the mother of his baby, to make that stance.
Actually, it was 36 hours, but point taken. And you can multiply this factor when there's a multiple killing. Many commentators reminded us of that when an apparently deranged young man killed 12 people in a Colorado movie theater this July, and New Jersey's Chris Christie -- our national hero of the moment -- said TV discussions of gun control were "grandstanding," and media critic Howard Kurtz seemed to agree with him.
The funny -- OK, not funny -- thing is that there's victims of gun violence in the United States every day. This weekend, five people were murdered with guns in my hometown of Philadelphia-- so is it too soon to talk about how gun laws and culture contributed to their death?
Or too late?
The reaction to Costas proves what he should have already known -- that a pro football game isn't the time to talk such a serious issue. Or any sporting event. Or any entertainment-based program, the firmament of our American dreamland. And you know where else it's completely inappropriate to mention guns? A U.S. presidential election. The Washington Post even made this point, noting that gun control is "a topic taboo for even presidential candidates."
So if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were afraid to talk about guns (and they were), no wonder America was so shocked when Bob Costas spoke Sunday night, shocked that a man in his position didn't know the right time to talk about guns in this great nation.
Call me crazy, but I'm not sure that's how it should be. I was only 5 years old in 1964, but over the years I've read and seen one of the greatest speeches on the cause of free speech, which was delivered that year by a Berkeley college student named Mario Savio. As the years pass, I think of his words frequently. He said:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.
Look, I'm a politics fanatic and a sports fanatic -- and I don't want to see stark political commentary become a regular halftime feature. But every once in while, there is something that that, in Savio's words, makes you so sick at heart that exercising your right to free speech -- in a place and at a time that will shock some people, to wake them out of their slumber -- isn't just brave, but it is absolutely necessary.
Bob Costas threw himself on the gears Sunday night, even as the me-too machine of "popular" opinion chewed him up. It was absolutely the right thing to do.