By Tyler Mulhearn, PhD
Earlier this month, news broke of NBC’s apparent retaliation against Bob Costas following his comments regarding concussions in football. Costas, a sports commentator at NBC for nearly 40 years, had been growing increasingly disenchanted and concerned over the state of football and the potential negative effect on players’ health. Costas had gained immense popularity, at least partially, due to his compelling, direct commentaries on controversial topics in sports. For example, Costas discussed steroids in baseball at a time when few other commentators would even dare to broach the subject.
Back in 2015, Costas wrote an essay on concussions in football and planned to air it on a Sunday Night Football game in December. The essay, however, was never delivered by Costas on national television. The reason? In Costas’s own words, “I remember the reaction almost verbatim. They said, 'This is a very well-written piece, wouldn't change a comma. We can't air it. We're in negotiations with the NFL for Thursday Night Football.’”
Fast-forward to 2017 when Costas delivered a speech at the University of Maryland in which he stated football “destroys people’s brains.” Costas, who was originally scheduled to commentate for Super Bowl LII in 2018, was informed his comments had “crossed the line” and that he was “not the right person to celebrate football.” Costas did not object, and the two parties have since parted ways.
Much has been discussed of the potential link between football and brain injuries. For example, a 2017 Journal of the American Medical Association article, reported CTE, a degenerative brain disease, in 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players. Moreover, the movie “Concussion” detailing the story of the scientist discovering the link between football and CTE brought greater awareness to the problem. The NFL, to its credit, has taken steps in recent years to address the problem. For one, in 2016, the league pledged $100 million to research devoted to player safety, particularly head injuries. Rules intended to prioritize player safety, such as the targeting rule which strictly prohibits a player from lowering his helmet when tackling another player, have been instituted in recent years. Further, the NFL recently started its own program titled “Play Smart Play Safe” with an emphasis on protecting players, implementing technology, and advancing medical research.
However, the intent of this blog post is not to take sides in this hotly contested debate or point shameful fingers. The focus instead is on Costas’s actions and the reaction by his longtime employer. These events point to three issues related to ethics broadly: power, conflicts of interest, and whistleblowing.
The decision by NBC to not allow Costas to disclose his misgivings about football and the subsequent decision to part ways with Costas stems back to the power and influence of the NFL. In acquiring the rights for Sunday Night Football back in 2005, NBC agreed to pay the NFL $600 million per year. Moreover, the NFL received $7 billion from TV networks alone this year. As a result, the power and influence of the NFL is second to none and allows the league to sit back as networks and executives fight amongst themselves for an opportunity to televise games one day a week. Despite Costas’s own legendary status as a sports commentator, his derisive commentary towards the league’s attitude towards head injuries stood little chance of damaging the league’s reputation. Radical systematic and organizational changes such as this one take a considerable amount of time and effort.
For its part, NBC was stuck between a rock and a hard place in deciding between siding with the power and influence of the NFL and the thoughtful, progressive analysis of Costas. In other words, a potential conflict of interest presided between these two parties and divergent perspectives. As a result, NBC decided to carefully walk on eggshells in courting the NFL for Thursday Night Football and quash any negative press directed towards the league or sport.
Costas’s decision to speak out about what he viewed as the wrongdoings of the NFL can also be viewed as a form of whistleblowing. In most cases, whistleblowing occurs in an organization in which an employee publicly speaks out about a (presumably) unknown illegal or unethical conduct within that organization. In this case, Costas publicly spoke out about an issue that had been known about for over a decade in an organization for which he was not directly employed. Costas knew he was putting his reputation and career on the line but had strong convictions about the league’s impact on the livelihood of its players.
So, what can we learn from Costas’s actions and NBC’s subsequent reactions? There are several takeaways that apply broadly to organizational ethics:
The Ethics Advantage Team