There was a feeling of anticipation during the halftime broadcast of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” game on Dec. 2 as articulate veteran broadcaster Bob Costas, using his on-air time before an audience that regularly reaches over 20 million viewers, began delivering a concise and sensible commentary on the availability of guns following the murder-suicide of NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend one day earlier.
Belcher had shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, nine times in front of Belcher’s mother, and with his three-month-old daughter in the home. About an hour later, Belcher shot himself with a different gun at the Kansas City Chiefs’ training facility.
Costas, as usual, was eloquent and astute with his thoughts about the accessibility of guns, and backed up his commentary with a quote from a sportswriter he admitted to not always agreeing with when he included Jason Whitlock’s assertion that had Belcher not owned a gun that both he and Perkins would be alive. Watching the 92-second commentary, one could not help but foresee the growing resentment Costas was likely sparking from the millions of Americans who believed he overstepped his role as a sportscaster, as well as the infuriation of those who believe that gun-ownership rights should be immune from debate.
On Monday’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” the comedy program pointed out the hypocrisy of Costas’s detractors -- all of whom from FOX News, a network that often treats analysis as satire, if only that was their intent. Multiple FOX News pundits chastised Costas, known more for sportscasting than political commentary, for his stance on gun culture, despite being willing participants in the network’s promotion of celebrity viewpoints when that opinion matches their own.
Without offering one fact or statistic on gun control and America’s gun culture, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham injected plausible ways Belcher could have plotted to murder his girlfriend outside of using a firearm.
“I guess Costas doesn’t think Belcher is strong enough to asphyxiate his girlfriend, or smart enough to hook up a hose into his garage and kill her through asphyxiation by carbon monoxide,” said Ingraham, on Fox & Friends. “So, he must have an enormous amount of information that the rest of us don’t have.”
Ingraham wasn’t done. She decided to dismiss Costas’s comprehension of a subject that she herself failed to demonstrate much knowledge of.
“The analysis is so facile, it’s so glib,” she added of Costas’s segment. “He’s a very talented guy, but he wants to be seen as very serious on every subject. And I would suggest to Mr. Costas, you don’t know that much about what you’re talking about.”
If Ingraham had done some research on Costas, as she should have on the topic he invoked, she may have known that the often congenial NBC host has a firm understanding of media ethics and news boundaries. In 2005, Costas graciously stepped aside as fill-in anchor of CNN’s “Larry King Live,” because he wouldn’t participate in the coverage of missing Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway, whose disappearance generated overwhelming television coverage.
Costas has also reported on significant news topics, and has been widely lauded for his efforts. In June, he directed sharp and purposeful questions to accused sex offender Jerry Sandusky.
Ingraham may have considered switching channels to another cable news network on Monday when Costas, who had previously appeared on FOX News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” as well as MSNBC, sat down with Piers Morgan on CNN.
“Do I believe that without impinging on what I take to be the spirit of the Second Amendment and the legitimate right to own a gun of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their family without impinging on that, we could easily tighten up the existing laws or expand the existing laws,” Costas told Morgan. “Forty percent of all the firearms purchased in this country are purchased without a background check.
“There is no federal ban on assault weapons like AK-47s or high capacity ammunition magazines or a 50-caliber sniper rifle which can literally pierce an airplane fuselage, or the side of an armored limousine. There's no purpose for anyone outside the police force and the military to have weapons like that. And while there are tight gun controls in some areas, it's ridiculously easy for someone to purchase a gun online or multiple guns or at a gun show and then those guns wind up in the hands of people in Washington, D.C. or New York which may have stricter gun controls but it's so easy to get around the gun controls.
“You could literally be a felon, walk out of jail, and it would be very easy for you to purchase a weapon without any kind of a background check. You could be on a terrorist watch list, a no-fly lest, but you could still acquire a gun in this country.
“George Zimmerman had an arrest record and he had a restraining order for domestic violence taken out against him in his past. Now that restraining order had expired. I'm not commenting on the exact whys and wheres, for that will play out in the court of law about what happened between him and Trayvon Martin. But what does common sense tell you about the likelihood of that confrontation ever taking place in the first place if George Zimmerman was not carrying a gun?”
Indeed, Costas proved he at least has more than pedestrian knowledge of gun control. While Costas may not be an expert on the issue, he was prompted into the debate in context to the Belcher murder, which was tied to the sport he was covering. The Belcher homicide made major headlines mainly because he is a professional football player, and the events that unfolded that day sent shockwaves through NFL and sports media.
Sports is considered entertainment and offers a welcome break from hard issues, and some may argue that such politically charged conversation has no place during a live sporting event. Critics of Costas’s segment suggest that a halftime report is not the appropriate forum for espousing on social issues.
But if not in front of 20 million viewers who were watching a sport where one player made headlines one day earlier for a horrific crime, then where and when?
Costas had access to a large audience to make a point that may rear its ugly head again, and he had the courage to go through the media rounds to defend his actions and add to his earlier points. One could argue that Costas’s silence on America’s gun culture the day after the shooting would have been an exercise in irresponsible journalism.
Athletes, who have been known to endure mental and emotional strains due to medication and head injuries, may very well be more susceptible to heinous crimes than other gun owners. Some retired NFL players have complained of mental trauma following years of playing the high-impact sport, and many professional athletes say they regularly arm themselves because they feel like targets.
Belcher is not the only American athlete who has been involved in a murder with the use of a firearm. Former Pro-Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison is under FBI investigation after being accused by a victim for a fatal shooting in Philadelphia. In February, NFL defensive back Glenn Sharpe was charged with the fatal shooting of a man in an Atlanta suburb.
In 2010, former NBA forward Jayson Williams pleaded guilty to accidentally shooting his limousine driver to death in 2002. Williams, who wrote a book which cited multiple incidents where he playfully used a hand gun and nearly killed a bystander, has a history of violent behavior that also included a potential suicide. One former NBA player recounted that Williams pointed a gun at him after Williams shot his own dog to death.
The Belcher tragedy may have contributed to progress in the NFL gun culture. According to USA Today, three out of four NFL players own a gun, compared with up to 45 percent of the general population, but at least seven players have said that they turned in their weapons to their teams’ security personnel following the Belcher incident.
The gun culture debate certainly extends beyond sports, but the forum Costas took may actually have been ideal for his audience. Many sports fans have a firm grasp of team and player stats, but likely can’t recite gun statistics.
There are some staggering figures for the stat-minded fan who may want to brush up on an important issue. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 16,799 homicides in the U.S. in 2009, 11,493 were shootings, which makes up better than 68 percent. Forty percent of guns were sold by unlicensed, private sellers. There are an estimated 270 million guns under civilian ownership.
The aftermath of a fatal shooting may not be the best time to prompt a discussion on gun culture, but it seems an almost verboten topic today and someone needed to draw attention to it. Instead of letting the topic slide yet another time, Costas elected to bring it to the forefront.
Costas shouldn’t be rebuked for his commentary. He should be commended for it.