Costas Now Brings Out Stars, Lacks Controvesy

Hank Aaron and Willie Mays on stage with Bob Gibson in the audience. Few shows, or hosts, can attract baseball diety like Bob Costas. Wednesday’s second townhall format of Costas Now brought more star power, better timed panel discussions, but failed to replicate the controversy that Buzz Bissinger and Will Leitch stirred – though the two sat side by side, toasting beers, in the audience.

Costas opened with Dave Winfield, Jim Palmer, and Pete Rose via satellite, discussing the Hall of Fame. Removing Rose from the live show (illness) took away some potentially awkward moments on stage when debating his reinstatement. Can Winfield take a side? He’s not there to tell us what he hear’s other people saying – we hear those people too – tell us what you think, straight out about Rose, in or out. Palmer advocated Pete. As usual, Rose paraded for himself consuming more time than planned, leaving less time for other issues among the topic. Suspected and convicted drug users came up – Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro – and stat accumluators like Jim Thome that have denigrated the meaning of 500 homers. Most agree drug users are out, so are are accumulators, but I wanted to go one by one through a list of about 5 players and get everyone’s opinion – in or out, including Costas. They didn’t even get into pitchers. What is the new 300 wins and new criteria? Is Mussina a hall of famer? The hall is about more than Rose and steroids.

Panel discussed baseball’s first half, yet I don’t think the word playoffs came up once. Evan Longoria, Jimmy Rollins, and Todd Jones are all in the playoff hunt still, which precludes them from any bold predictions. Who wants to hear more about maple bats? Give it a two minute answer and move on. Instead of the writers picking first half MVP’s, surprises, disappointments, and Cy Youngs, put the players on the spot. Ask these guys if they want Barry Bonds on there team – a major baseball 2008 question. How did the Sabathia and Harden trades change the NL race? THe panel is baseball’s first half, so discuss baseball’s first half.

Costas called out Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, about ticket prices, in a panel with Dave Winfield and Andy Van Slyke. Public tax funding of new stadiums followed by lack of affordable tickets received a big stir from the audience, who will certainly suffer from that dichotomy with the new Yankee and Met stadiums starting next year. The remainder of the panel, The State of the Game, was interesting, but lost in the shadows of anticipation of Hammerin’ Hank and the Say Hey Kid.

Mays and Aaron had a great dynamic – Aaron’s stoicism accompanied by Mays’ humor and passion. Priceless stories, great commentary. One valid point that arose from this discussion, and a comment by Jimmy Rollins, is how the Nego Leagues demise may have led to the disintegration of African-American players in the majors. The discussion evaded controversy, as it should with two older, living legends. Both players are anti-PED’s, as most older players are, but neither will go on a diatribe about how wrong it is. Aaron gracefully annointed Bonds the home run champ, handling it like he did last year, and like he always does, with class. This discussion was about the stories. Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, Willie asking for a raise then charging a Cadillac to his owner after the owner refused to give him a hgiher salary.

What started as five extra minutes for HBO.com turned into an entire half hour to forty minutes that will now air as an entirely separate Costas Now episode just about Aaron and Mays. I’ll never forget being in that room with those two guys and Bob Gibson, who looks like he can still knock down a hitter that leans over the plate.

Somehow an ad or link for this Costas Now show was nowhere to be found on HBO.com. The 5-minute turned half hour segment not available for streaming. This is rare stuff that baseball fans live for, get it on the home page. What’s new on Cinemax can wait a day. No excuses for not having the video up there either, those at home missed out. Mays went on a roll after the HBO segment stopped. Even though it will air as a separate episode, studies prove online video does not cannibalize TV, get the video on the website immediately, and make it a presence on the homepage.

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Costas Now Panels Touch a Nerve

Leave it to HBO Sports to tackle the juicy topics. Last night’s Costas Now, a live townhall format broken into five different panels covering different topics in sports media, invited the major players from both sides of the debate created engaging, inspired debate – at least in three or four of the panels. More than entertainment, last night’s guest provided insight to how the major players actually feel about these hot button topics. This show, and hopefully more in this format to follow, somewhat make-up for HBO’s decision to bounce Inside the NFL next season, great football program in a land littered with excess.

Buzz Bissinger, representing print media in a discussion on the impact of blogging and the Internet, clearly had a personal agenda. One of the kings in today’s blogosphere, Will Leitch of Deadspin, received the brunt of Bissinger’s emotional attack. Citing excerpts from Deadspin that included lewd language, Bissinger launched the same tired argument shared by most traditional, veteran media members – blogs are not real journalism, they degrade what the real journalists do, it’s unprofessional, no substantiating facts. His tone was overly confrontational, emanating the feeling that Bissinger personally blamed blogs (and Leitch) for killing off his beloved newspaper industry, making them irrelevant, which is absolutely not true. Representing bloggers, the so-called immature and obscene group in the argument, Leitch came off more professional than Bissinger, allowing the old-timer to spew venom without losing his cool.

If anything, Bissinger was culpable of the exact accusations he made of the blogosphere – misinformed, uneducated, and solely opinionated. Generalizing blogs as garbage is an extremely slanted opinion. By now, after all these years of pristine journalism experience, the concept of sample size. Using one or two blogs to generalize comments about thousands, or millions that exist is inappropriate. I take offense, as I work hard on this blog and a few others to state facts, while publicizing my viewpoints for the benefit of discussion, and to establish a reputation to market myself since I don’t have access to the public forum Bissinger, and others are afforded. If blogs are killing journalism, why do most major media outlets now host blogs, luminous writers post blogs almost daily. Did he forget them?  Clearly, Bissinger is Internet illiterate, unaware of the benefits of blogs, podcasts, and the like. He only knows that new media will eventually kill off those in his generation that fail to adapt, and he acted defiant in accusing bloggers everywhere for making him less relevant in today’s world.

Print media will not disappear, those that embrace new media will continue to be the best reporters around. Remember, bloggers without press credentials still rely on so-called mainstream media to deliver sports news, they then open a new forum that engages the fans interactively, rather than only dictating to the fan. This generation of sports media has room for both, contrary to Bissinger, and his slanted view. Braylon Edwards was the third member of this panel, virtually a silent partner, and not the best selection. HBO should have tapped one of the many athletes who maintain personal blogs. If his team was not busy mouthing off to the media, Gilbert Arenas would have fit perfect – or any of the bloggers on NBA.com, or star players that maintain their own website. Curt Schilling is never at a loss for words, appeared in many segments of the show, has anyone heard of 38pitches?

Sports radio, the disruptive predecessor to Internet blogging, opened the show. Aware or not, HBO put Michael Strahan next to Chris “Mad Dog” Russo on stage, immediate cause for fireworks. Strahan has refused to speak to Russo and radio partner Mike Francesca after they pulled a traditional sports talk two-face on him eight years ago, playing nice during an interview, then bashed him on the radio afterwards. And Strahan is one of many on that list. It opened an interesting dialogue on the fine line between pleasing the athlete and pleasing the fan. Russo lamented, and rightfully so, that he accentuates the negative because thats what fans want, that’s what fills the lines up, drives the ratings, brings in money – all measures of success in sports radio. Criticizing athletes opens radio personalities to creating these rifts with the players. Sports talk is for the fan, driven by the fan. Strahan can criticize Russo for not confronting him directly during an interview, he can’t chastise him for attacking his play, or his actions. Athletes are public figures, playing sports, a game for the fans. If Michael Strahan holds out of training camp for contract reasons, radio hosts have a right to the opinion that he’s wrong, he may cost the team a game, he should not be a captain. Fans hold these same opinions, they tune in to hear opinions, they call in to state opinions, they show up at games to express their feeling. Yes, talk show hosts need to be more upfront with athletes, say their peace. But, at the same time, athletes need to desensitize and realize its a job, just like playing the game is their job, and its not personal. Athletes are just as responsible. When they act like Strahan, shutting off the media when they don’t like what they hear, it forces talk show hosts and even print to more carefully choose words around the athletes. Then when callers want to attack a player’s performance the media has to engage in that debate – it’s their job.

Because neither Russo, Francesca, or Mitch Albom, the third member of this debate, engage in the Howard Stern side of talk radio the issue of guy talk on sports radio did not gain much traction. The prevailing thought of Program Directors and talk show hosts trying to make a name for themselves that edginess and sex drives ratings, sports alone can’t, is wrong. Mike and the Mad Dog prove it everyday, most of ESPN Radio does. Pop culture always has a place, especially as sports and entertainment become more intertwined, but sports alone can be presented in an entertaining fashion. The key is engaging the audience. Hosts that rely on alternative topics to attract fans simply lack sports journalism skills.

Skipping the fluff panel that was sports television, manned by Joe Buck, Dan Patrick, and Mike Tirico, where the lack of an alternative voice to challenge the sports personalities turned this into a boring session of laughs and game of who can answer the questions without criticizing the employer the best. They all failed. Tirico tried to make it serious, but Buck refused to allow it. Sadly, many interesting topics fall into this area, start times for the games that Buck broadcasts and its impact on next generation fans, Fox’s modernization of game coverage, the on-field interviews of coaches and players during the game, live mic’s in locker rooms, diminishing ratings, thoughts on games slowly migrating to the Internet and if that changes their coverage, the question of broadcasters remaining unbiased to teams. None of these were seriously addressed to my dismay.

Crunched for time in this 90-minute event, the session on athlete and media relations was cut short. When John McEnroe can’t get an opinion across, you know they need more time. Interesting seeds for future discussions came up, notably Selena Roberts, a fantastic print journalist formerly of the NY Times now at Sports Illustrated, using an example of her inability to speak with Lebron James to prove how athletes have distanced themselves from the media. Another great topic, worthy of having an older athlete from the era when players and reporters drank scotch at the bar together, a seasoned reporter that has witnessed the shift, and a modern athlete that leads the sheltered life. Tiki Barber and McEnroe, while experiencing both sides of the fence, are not the best examples since athletes tend to open up to former athletes more than true media members. Again, worthy of more time, different panel.

Perhaps the touchiest subject ended the night, racism. Jason Whitlock and Michael Wilbon, both African-American, pull no punches about the misgivings of black athletes, they play no favorites, however Costas raised the pervasive issue facing white media members. If he, or I, or any regular white American discusses race relations that criticize an African-American for feeding a certain stereotype, the commentary is considered racist. When Whitlock or Wilbon present the same case, it’s praised. Both journalists argued that’s not the case, cited examples such as Tony Kornheiser, who engages in race talk with Wilbon on PTI, and a few other notable writers. The examples are far and few between, Costas is exactly right. White reporters face a double-edged sword, high-risk, low-reward place for entering the discussion. Having a Whitlock and a Wilbon, who see the reality, realize that its the Barry Bonds witch hunt was not race related, regardless what Bonds thought, is great for sports media, great for the social perspective of this country. Unfortunately, that watchdog must be the same race as the people that criticize, simple as that.

As time expired, Costas announced another townhall style show dedicated to the race in sports topic is scheduled. HBO deserves a star for hosting this informative, interesting show. For a first attempt, they get an A-. Most things worked, some aspects should change, but the live audience, live panel, hard issues make this format of Costas Now a keeper.