Buzz, Bob, Projectile Spittle and Me

Buzz Bissinger, Will Leitch, and Bob Costas on Costas Now. Photo: YouTube

Nine months ago Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, made his thoughts about sports blogs loudly and profanely known on a live episode of HBO’s Costas Now. At the receiving end of this tirade: Will Leitch, now a contributing editor at New York. (Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards and Bob Costas looked on.) Now that Costas has shelved the program and moved on to the MLB Network, Leitch takes a look back at the incident in this excerpt from the paperback version of his book God Save the Fan, out now.

Bob Costas was beginning to sweat. The famously smooth broadcaster sat in a crowded Starbucks on Columbus Circle, in the shadow of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, and frustration was starting to set in. He had talked to the boyish Midwesterner for about 45 minutes, and despite his best efforts, the boy — chugging a bottled water, sweating as well — just didn’t seem to get it.

“It’s just that all these comments are so third-rate,” Costas said, leaning in, driving the point home: “I mean, come on. Can’t these people come up with anything more clever than ‘Costas is a dwarf’?”

This was not a new point for Costas. A month before, he was speaking on a sports-media panel when the subject of bloggers came up. He had minced few words in making mincemeat of most of my professional colleagues.

“It’s one thing if somebody sets up a blog from their mother’s basement in Albuquerque and they are who they are, and they’re a pathetic get-a-life loser, but now that pathetic get-a-life loser can piggyback onto someone who actually has some level of professional accountability and they can be commenter No. 17 on Dan Le Batard’s column or Bernie Miklasz’s column in St. Louis,” Costas had said. “That, in most cases, grants a forum to somebody who has no particular insight or responsibility. Most of it is a combination of ignorance or invective. It’s just a high-tech place for idiots to do what they used to do on bar stools or in school yards, if they were school-yard bullies, or on men’s-room walls in gas stations. That doesn’t mean that anyone with half a brain should respect it.”

Writing on Deadspin, I expressed disappointment; I liked Costas, as did many of my readers. I hoped he was misquoted. He seemed too smart for such blatant, proud ignorance. (Fittingly, the first comment on Costas’s post said, “Costas couldn’t find perspective if someone dropped him into Rosie O’Donnell’s pussy,” which totally helped make my case. Thanks, dude.) The outcry over Costas’s rant was immediate, and Costas, unaccustomed to bad publicity, found my phone number and called. We had not spoken before. He wasn’t contrite, but he was eager to “clarify.” “I was absolutely not saying that most or all bloggers were losers,” he told me. “It just seems so often that commenters use insults in the place of arguments. Is there a lot out there that’s also well written? Of course. But forgive me for not placing the exact same value on a comment on a political blog that I would to something said by Ted Koppel.”

But we were cool; I dutifully recorded his words, like a reporter, and the pretend tempest was contained once I “clarified” on the site. Plus, you know, now I had Bob Costas’s number in my phone, right between those of my cousin (who’s always calling to borrow money) and a moderately hot girl I met at a bar a few years ago (who gave me a fake number).

A week later, when one of Costas’s producers asked if I’d be interested in appearing on Costas NOW, the HBO program, to talk about sports media with Bob and other panelists, I agreed. I had a book to sell, HBO often has smart people on, and Costas and I, you know, we’re bros now — fist pound, yo. When the hardcover version of God Save the Fan came out, I’d gone on a monthlong media tour, so I had my talking points nailed, stuffed, and mounted. Then Costas called, saying that he’d met everyone who would be on the panel, other than me, so formal introductions were probably in order.

Which is how I ended up in the Starbucks, watching Costas sweat.

I walked in and met Costas and his wife, who looks like a less harsh, friendlier Cindy McCain. I don’t drink coffee, so she bought me a water and, after about twenty minutes of small talk, drifted away to another table. I sized up Costas. He looked exactly like he did on television. It was almost creepy. It wasn’t makeup that made him look perpetually 35; he actually walks around like that, all the time. Sure, the hair was dyed, but he’s a TV guy — you kind of have to do that until you’re as old as Bob Barker and don’t have to care anymore. I was excited to be talking to him. Look, Mom, it’s Bob Costas!

And then, for about an hour, I became Costas’s personification of the internet. I knew that his understanding of the web was rudimentary, but I had no idea just how clueless he really was. It was as if he had never looked at a computer until the “get-a-life losers” kerfuffle. But rather than respond with curiosity, Costas had, apparently, decided that everything on the internet was designed specifically to make him look like a jerk. And because he apparently had never met anyone who worked online before, I became the outlet for his frustrations.

Bob CostasPhoto: Getty Images

Costas railed about bad language on blogs and blog comments (“You shouldn’t say things online you wouldn’t want your children to say”), cowardly anonymity (“You wouldn’t dare say any of this stuff to my face”), lack of access (“You’ve never covered an Olympics; I’ve covered five”), and, amusingly, whether he was funny (“You know, I go on Jon Stewart’s show, it’s clear he finds me a riot”). I was struck by how willful Costas was in ignoring evidence against his central point: that everything written on the internet was meant to personally denigrate him, and that I had written it. I explained to him that I wrote the post, and afterwards, readers were allowed to comment. (You know, like in that Bernie Miklasz column.) He was unable to grasp this; at one point, he actually said, “Why do you think me being dipped in Rosie O’Donnell’s pussy is funny?” I explained to him that I had not written that, carefully disguising (I hoped) my opinion that, well, it is a funny image.

Costas was not screaming and sputtering; he was calm, collected, smooth … he was Bob Costas. Listening to him insult me while acting as if I was somehow the Grand Poobah of the Internet and Its Mandated Conspiracy to Destroy Bob Costas and All He Has Worked For was made all the more unsettling by the whole thing being done in the Bob Costas voice. He was like this all the time. I tried to imagine how his children dealt with being grounded in the Bob Costas voice. Did he order pizza this way? Did he sound like this while having sex?

Through it all, Costas always came back to jokes about his height. These are de rigueur anytime Costas is mentioned on the web (“Fuck him and the lifts in his tiny little shoes,” for example), and surely, working in the world of sports around former athletes all the time, Costas should be used to that. But … no.

“Do you realize how stupid someone has to be just to keep making short jokes?” Costas barked (as much as Bob Costas can “bark”), pounding his empty coffee cup on the table. “Do you ever hear anybody say, ‘Paul Simon can’t make music because he’s short,’ or ‘Woody Allen can’t make movies because he’s short’? Is that really the best you can come up with? So you think I’m short? I’ve heard it before. It doesn’t bother me. It just tells me something about you.”

This went on for another ten minutes. I explained to him that I enjoy the music of Paul Simon and the movies of Woody Allen and, that, all told, I don’t consider him that short. (And I don’t.) That seemed to help.

Finally, after checking my watch for the fourth time, I directed him to the topic at hand: the program. At the time, we didn’t know who the third member of our panel would be, but he had signed on Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and I suspected he’d have a different take on blogs than mine — one probably closer to Costas’s, with whom he once collaborated on his unpublished memoir — but I was looking forward to meeting him anyway. Clearly a writer of his caliber would have a better understanding of the internet. Costas giggled. “Oh, Buzz is frothing at the mouth about this,” he said. “He feels stronger about this than I do.” I found this difficult to believe.

As we left, I dropped my empty water bottle and it skittered across the floor. A few patrons noticed the clatter, and us. Thus recognized, Costas sprung into action. “FUMBLE!!!!!!” he yelled, loud enough for everyone in the Starbucks to hear. He then smiled and waved to the crowd, shook my hand, said he’d see me in a couple of weeks, and left.

I found the conversation unnerving. The HBO thing was beginning to sound like a bunch of old men screaming about those goddamn kids on their lawns. I did some research on Bissinger and found an interview in which he claimed, “[Blogs] disgrace the written word. With the internet, there’s too much information out there, and we’ve become a very mindless country. I don’t know how else to say it: We really revel in ignorance and disinformation.” I mentioned my concerns to my agent, Kate, and my book editor, David.

Digging through my in-box, I find this e-mail to David, sent the morning after I met Costas:

It was a reasonable conversation, but it is impossible to overstate how little Bob Costas understands about the Web. He only recently realized that the comments on a story are not written by the author. I had to talk to him as if I were describing the Internet to my grandmother. He had no idea what Facebook was. Costas is an intelligent guy, but he has obviously had so much smoke blown up his ass for so long that he can’t see the forest for the trees. He legitimately does not understand how people can be so mean on the internet. He actually said, “People will say things on the Internet that they wouldn’t say in person.” Well, duh, Costas, welcome to fucking earth.

This is all to say: Even though it was beneficial to talk to him, we should be 100 percent aware that I AM walking into an ambush. All Costas really has to say about the Web is, “why is everyone so mean?” I’m legitimately going to be called upon to defend not my site, not my book, not me … BUT THE WHOLE INTERNET. On the panel with me is Buzz Bissinger, who Costas described as “frothing at the mouth” about blogs. And moderating this discussion will be a guy who says, with a straight face, “I wouldn’t read those comments to my mother! Would you?” Because they’re on your site. Is this how you want to be known?”

I will be prepared, and I am doing everything in my power to overcome my natural tendency to sound defensive when challenged. I’ll be ready for this. But we definitely need to be aware of what we’re in for here.

David, being a New York media maven (he’s actually part of the “Jewish cabal” Judith Regan infamously cited, which makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a celebrity every time we meet), was friends with an HBO producer. He called that guy and said I was worried about walking into an ambush. David was reassured that there was no ambush planned, that it would be “an active exchange of ideas.” So I began to prepare. We were only a week away.

I had done some television before, but mostly fun, silly stuff, like FOX’s Red Eye and CNN’s Reliable Sources, programs not known for screaming matches (or viewers). But I knew we would be frying different fish on HBO. Also, I know my own limitations. One of my major failings is that I can, occasionally, sound defensive without realizing it. A small example: My mom once asked me how I was doing one morning, and I screamed, “WHY MUST EVERYTHING I DO BE SO TERRIBLY WRONG, MOTHER?” It seemed like something I should work on.

So I called my mom. She suggested I work on being “Obama Cool.” In the spring of 2008, every time you turned on a television, Barack Obama would be debating Hillary Clinton, and she would be screaming and hollering and trying to make him squirm, and he would just smile and let it roll off him. It must be a Hawaii thing. Mom said that if someone on the show called me an asshole, I should just smile, make my point, and move on.

For the rest of the week, I focused on nothing but Obama Cool. Have confidence; remember that you’re debating the camera (and the audience), not whoever is on stage with you. I internalized all this, to the point that, if Bissinger fired up a chainsaw, I would have flashed him a lopsided smile and said, “Well, sir, that’s an interesting point, and — heavens, that’s not nice, that’s my leg, sir.”

The night before, Mark Tupper, a reporter I grew up reading in the Decatur (Ill.) Herald and Review, called me after hearing a “rumor” that I would be on HBO the next evening. (This is about as muckraking as journalism in Central Illinois gets.) We spoke for about 30 minutes, along the lines of “hometown boy takes victory lap!” (Because not that many homes have cable, I found out later that my little town was host to various viewing parties, with groups of twenty or so people going to the rich folks’ houses that had HBO.) The story was nice: Mattoon’s own, Will Leitch, talking to Bob Costas! Bob Costas! On national TV! Live! A coronation. What could possibly go wrong? But I knew better than to think Mattoon was anything like the media world.

Before we showed up at the studio, David, my girlfriend Alexa, and my friend Aileen had a drink at a bar down the street. The fear was palpable. We barely spoke, and any attempts at humor were strained. Theoretically speaking, there was no reason for us to be that nervous. It was just a TV show, the producers had reassured us there was no attack coming. If I were there to talk about Sino-Christian relations, I might be a bit out of my depth. But sports? It’s just sports, man. But still: I drank two beers quicker than is healthy.

At the studio, Alexa and Aileen sat in the audience and David and I went backstage. The first person we met was Costas. In preparation for the taping, I’d gotten a haircut. Costas noticed. “So, did your mom cut your hair?” he asked. My synapses were too fried to do anything else but chuckle. Later, I told my mom this story, which was a mistake; during Costas’s notable (and extremely well-done) interview with President Bush a few months later during the Beijing Olympics, she said she shut off the television because she “couldn’t stand looking at that ass.” This made her the first person in recent history to see George Bush on television and change the channel because of another human being on screen.

We milled around the green room. If you’re the type of person who cares about such matters, the following people were extremely friendly: John McEnroe, Michael Wilbon, Selena Roberts, and Mike Tirico. The following people were less so: Jason Whitlock, Cris Carter, Joe Buck. I talked to Braylon Edwards, who seemed as confused as anyone else as to why he was on my panel but jokingly pointed out how much better he looked in his suit than I did in mine. And, pacing around the room, clutching a folder of Deadspin printouts (though I didn’t know this at the time) like it was a talisman, was Buzz Bissinger. David went over to talk to him first, and left about fifteen words in with a grimace and a heads-up: “He’s locked and loaded.” Then, with the show about to start, Buzz walked over to me.

“Hey, it’s good to meet you, sir,” I said. “This should be fun.”

He didn’t even look at me. “So, you’re a Cardinals fan?” he said, with a smirk.“Yes,” I said. “They’re pretty much our family religion.”

He walked away, not even acknowledging my response. This was not going to end well.

So, if you don’t know what happened on the show, let’s just say it was not a Socratic exchange of ideas. Bissinger displayed all the ignorance of Costas in that coffee shop but none of the smoothness. Frothing at the mouth didn’t come close to covering it.

I think I kept my cool pretty well, all told, mainly because I was the only person on the panel (save for maybe Edwards) who had heard of YouTube. I remember, toward the end of the segment, when Bissinger — who I suspect was expecting me to crumple, or come in looking like Sid Vicious, all “fuck you and your medium, scum” — either ran out of energy or realized what he’d just done to his reputation. He made his last remark and sort of slumped down in his chair — All done now, bedtime. I felt for him at that moment, and now.

I’ve never had any harsh feelings toward Bissinger. He’s an elegant writer, and obviously passionate. I think you can’t get to where he is without being rabid about what you do, and if you see something you think is a refutation of all that hard work (even if it isn’t), you fight that thing with everything you have. Bissinger might not have been right, and he might not have been particularly articulate, but he was Buzz Bissinger. I respect that. Later, when Bissinger was doing his Contrition Tour on various radio stations, in newspapers, and on any blog that had his e-mail address, he contacted me and apologized. I told him that wasn’t necessary; plus, you know, Obama Cool.

The show, weirdly, couldn’t have gone better for me. I let the crazy man scream; my politeness, as opposed to his, would hopefully speak for itself.

Meanwhile, Bob Costas sat there, calm, smooth, cool, acting stunned — like, wow, amazing that this could have happened. On his show, of all places.

A week later, Costas, in response to what he called “public outcry,” asked me to tape a segment on his radio show, Costas Coast to Coast. I agreed, though I was already tired of talking about the incident. The interview was dull — so dull, in fact, that Costas stopped halfway through and started over. (He claimed this had never happened “in all my years of broadcasting.” I found that unlikely.)

After the interview ended (I was one of two guests that week. The other: Darrell Hammond!), Costas took me aside.

“So, I read your book,” he said. I asked him if he enjoyed it. “Well, I finished it. And I noticed your little line about me peeing sitting down.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s just a little joke.”

Bob Costas frowned as much as Bob Costas can frown. “Well, I’m guessing that’s supposed to mean that I’m some sort of wimp. But you can ask anybody who has ever worked with me, ask them whether or not I’m a wimp. I’m damned tough when I need to be.”

He pointed to an intern in the corner, the same intern who rode up with me in the elevator when I came to the studio.

“Tommy, Tommy — you tell him. You’ve seen me have some real explosions in here. I think anybody who has ever worked with me can tell you how tough I am. You can ask anybody.”

I smiled, shook his hand, and then, ten minutes later, urinated next to him. He does not do it sitting down. You can ask anybody.

Copyright of HarperCollins Publishers

Buzz, Bob, Projectile Spittle and Me