SI 60: 1954-94: How We Got Here Chapter 1: The Titan of Television
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the greatest stories the magazine ever ran. We will publish one a day each weekday for the next 12 weeks. First up: Steve Rushin's magnum opus, How We Got Here, a five-part feature published in the Aug. 16, 1994 issue that celebrated SI's 40th anniversary and is, at 22,000 words, still the second-longest piece in the magazine's history.
History has thrown a thunderous combination. Blacks are voting in South Africa today; Richard Nixon awaits burial tonight. In the office of the president of ABC News, nine muted televisions, recessed in a mahogany wall, monitor global events. Nine TVs, arrayed in a grid, frame the faces of Clinton, De Klerk, Mandela: They look like the Hollywood Squares of high office.
''It is so striking,'' says Roone Arledge, the owner of this louvered window on the world. ''You look at Nelson Mandela and you look at Muhammad Ali. I can't help but see one in the other. The indomitability of spirit that both men have. You know, with the exception of the pope, Mandela may be the most famous man in the world today. Ali was that for many years.''
Nixon's face pops onto a screen, like fruit in a video slot machine. True story: When Arledge was the president of ABC Sports in 1971, he hired the anvil-headed Frank Gifford away from CBS. Gifford's first assignment at ABC was to announce the Hall of Fame exhibition football game in Canton, Ohio. But when Nixon decided to drop in on the game, suddenly -- horrifically -- Gifford's first assignment was to interview the President.
Minutes before the broadcast Nixon told Arledge what a fan he was of the New York Giants in those days when Gifford embodied that team. In fact, when Nixon practiced law in New York, he often attended postgame parties at Giff's place. And then the President of the United States said a most curious thing to the President of ABC Sports. RN told RA: ''I'm sure Frank would remember me.''
Sometime in the second half of this century, sports became an axis on which the world turns. The most famous man on earth was a heavyweight fighter, the Leader of the Free World boasted fretfully of his friendship with Frank Freaking Gifford. Earlier this day, in his ABC office, Arledge had mentioned the name of Michael Jordan, an American export as ubiquitous and profitable as Coca-Cola, and was asked how in heaven's name this had all come to be. How and when, exactly, did the globe become an NBA-licensed, Charles Barkley-signature basketball spinning madly on God's index finger?
Resplendent in a navy-blue suit, Arledge considered the question as an aide brought coffee, which was placed on a coffee table, next to a stack of coffee- table books: one on the Dalai Lama, one on Abraham Lincoln, one on Muhammad Ali.
''There have been comparable times in history when sports have been at the center of a culture and seemed to dominate the landscape,'' Arledge began. ''Whether in Greek society or in what used to be called the Golden Age of Sports. But everything . . .'' Pause. Sip.
''. . . everything is magnified by television.''
And Roone Arledge returned to his coffee. And nine muted televisions fairly lit the room.
Nineteen fifty-four was a dizzying breakout year for television. Steve Allen starred in the network debut of The Tonight Show on NBC. Johnny Carson starred in the network debut of Earn Your Vacation on CBS. The Army and Joe McCarthy starred in the Army-McCarthy hearings on all four networks -- NBC, CBS, ABC and Dumont -- as Senator Joe rooted out Reds through the riveting summer of 1954.
In that same summer Roone Pinckney Arledge Jr. was a 23-year-old corporal waiting at Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Grounds for his imminent discharge from the Army, at which time he could begin to transform television, and television could transform sport into something truly stupendous. Upon graduation from Columbia University in 1952, Arledge worked briefly at Dumont, and ever since, though his duties in that job had been menial, TV had coursed through his veins.
In 1954 a New York attorney named Howard Cosell left the practice of law (and his $30,000 salary) to embark on a career in sports broadcasting (for $250 a week), despite the fact that he had turned 36 years old that March, his receding hairline in need of reseeding.
In 1954 a 12-year-old child in Louisville had his red Schwinn bicycle stolen. ''I'd walk out of my house at two in the morning, and look up at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do,'' the boy turned man would later tell biographer Thomas Hauser. Cassius Clay learned boxing to avenge the theft of his bike.
Soon all of these celestial events would be confluent, meeting before the world on television, which stood poised to dwarf every other communication medium in 1954. That year Jack Warner forbade the appearance of a television set in the home scenes of any Warner Brothers movie, the film industry futilely attempting to wish TV away. It was too late.
''By 1954,'' wrote David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, ''there were 32 million television sets throughout the country, CBS television's gross billings doubled in that single year, and CBS became the single biggest advertising medium in the world. The real money, money and revenues beyond anyone's wildest dreams, was in television and above all in entertainment. The possibilities of nationwide advertising were beyond comprehension; afternoon newspapers quickly began to atrophy; mass-circulation magazines, which up until the early fifties had been the conduit of national mass advertising -- razor blades, beer, tires, cars, household goods -- were suddenly in serious trouble; within little more than a decade they would be dead or dying -- Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life. Television was about to alter the nature and balance of American merchandising and journalism.''
Amid all the withering print, 1954 also saw the birth of a mass-circulation magazine. The launch of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on Aug. 16 was especially propitious, for television, beginning almost that very year, was going to infuse sports with fabulous wealth, beam iconic images of athletes through space and around a wired world, push the major leagues to realize their manifest destiny in the American West, elevate interest in games to unprecedented heights and attract the professional interest of some vastly talented men and women, not to mention Rudy Martzke.
As Corporal Arledge riffled through those first issues of SI, the magazine seemed to encompass all that interested him about sports. ''It incorporated art and journalism in a way that was totally compelling,'' he says now, and he wondered then why TV couldn't do the same. He and friends lived a Sunday-to- Sunday existence as followers of the National Football League. Looking at photographs of these warriors, their hands gauze-wrapped like burn patients', steam clouds bursting from their mouths, he wondered why you never saw that on a telecast?
A magazine could offer a tight, clear photograph of Y.A. Tittle at the instant he stepped out-of-bounds. Why couldn't television? A scribe could write what he saw happening on the field, no matter how unflattering. So why couldn't a television announcer . . . tell it like it is?
Hi Mom brought Arledge his first Emmy, in 1959, and within two years he was producing sports at ABC, where everything he touched turned to gold statuettes. There was really little hope of competing with him when you think back on it; after all, the man had won an Emmy producing a puppet show. What would he do with the Olympic Games?
Before he made the Olympics Olympian, fathered Wide World of Sports, The American Sportsman, Monday Night Football, The Superstars, Nightline, 20/20, This Week with David Brinkley, Prime Time Live and Howard Cosell; before he pioneered and/or perfected the use of instant replay and handheld cameras and isolation cameras and sophisticated graphics and underwater video and split screens and field microphones; before he miked a dead zebra so that Sportsman viewers could better hear its being devoured by lions; before this ruddy-faced man named Roone fashioned a grand, safari-going, desk-dodging, expense- vouchered, limo-driven life for himself, he wrote a famous memo to his superiors at ABC telling them he was going to do all of that. The year was 1961.
Nineteen sixty-one happened also to be the year that FCC chairman Newton Minow famously called television ''a vast wasteland.'' Television's presentation of sports, specifically, was something worse altogether.
''The prevailing attitude was summed up by baseball commissioner Ford Frick,'' wrote Marc Gunther and Bill Carter in their book, Monday Night Mayhem. '' 'The view a fan gets at home,' Frick once said, 'should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat of the ball park.' ''
Turnstile-obsessed baseball owners agreed, and the networks fulfilled their wishes with primitive coverage. It would be uncharitable to say what your typical baseball owner was at the time, but it rhymed with Frick: If you wanted to see a ball game, went their shortsighted thinking, you would simply have to buy a ticket to the ballpark.
None of this mattered to ABC, which had no pro football and only a piece of baseball when Arledge arrived. But the development of videotape and the DC-8 -- cassettes and jets -- allowed him to go ''spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport,'' which was really a fancy, Roone-ified name for auto racing.
To be fair, Wide World of Sports also brought heavy coverage of figure skating and gymnastics, sports that would stir a quadrennial appetite for ABC's coverage of the Olympics and vault a few female athletes into the ether of superstardom: Olga Korbut and Peggy Fleming, Nadia Comaneci and Dorothy Hamill, Mary Lou Retton and Katarina Witt, Tonya and Nancy. Nevertheless, it was a measure of television's meager interest in the Games that ABC paid $50,000 for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and then skittishly reneged on the deal. But the space race was on, the cold war was at its hair-trigger, missiles-in-Cuba, shoe-pounding peak, and, says Arledge, ''it became apparent with the Olympics in those days that if you had an American against a Russian, it didn't matter what they were doing, they could have been kayaking and people would watch it.''
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been shot into space, and U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane had been shot out of it. So eager were Americans to see vanquished Russkies of any athletic stripe that even 20 years later, when the host nation would finally beat the Soviets in ice hockey at Lake Placid, the U.S. would go bananas over a sport about which it knew precious little. The victory would be consecrated by many as the greatest sporting achievement of the second half of this century, and the moment of triumph would be punctuated by announcer Al Michaels's asking in all sincerity, ''Do you believe in miracles?'' The game was brought to Americans by Roone Arledge and the American Broadcasting Company, which had been serving the cold war hot for two decades.
In the mid-1960s the Olympics and a new college football package were ABC's only familiar showcases, which meant that Wide World lavished extraordinary attention on exotica, Arledge flying around all creation to buy the rights to anything that wasn't already owned: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, golf's British Open, the Japanese All-Star baseball game. While in Tokyo to negotiate the rights to that extravaganza, the peripatetic Arledge took in a Japanese film. The action often occurred at half speed, in the grand tradition of the bad martial-arts movie. Not for the first time Arledge wondered: Why couldn't this be done on television?
His return to New York included a layover in Los Angeles. In a bar called Julie's, Arledge asked ABC engineer Bob Trachinger how TV could become master over time itself. Trach sketched it all out on a sodden cocktail napkin -- how an image could be taken off an Orthicon tube and replayed at half speed and. . . .
ABC first used slow-motion instant replay on Thanksgiving Day of 1961. The most scintillating play in the game between Texas and Texas A&M was . . . a field goal. The network replayed the chip shot as if it were historic, just as they would replay the scene two Novembers later when Ruby shot Oswald. But on this November day, as Arledge recalls, ''the earth did not shake.''
The temblor came one weekend later. Syracuse was at Boston College, whose quarterback, Jack Concannon, scampered 70 yards for a first-half touchdown, a black-and-white streak across the television set. But when ABC replayed it, defenders could be seen clearly missing tackles, key blocks were suddenly thrown into sharp relief, and announcer Paul Christman was able to narrate every nuance of the run. The screen flickered like hell, but Concannon was balletic at half speed, and any Ban-Lon-wearing, Ballantine-swigging, Barcalounging viewer at home could see the whole field opening up before him. Look closely, and you could see much, much more. ''You could see,'' says Arledge, ''a whole new era opening up.''
''CBS was the paragon of professional football broadcasting,'' notes Arledge. ''Ray Scott was its voice, and it treated every game as if it were played in a cathedral. The CBS style was very sedate, always has been: Pat Summerall followed in that tradition. But Ray Scott -- Ray Scott was a voice from behind the altar.''
ABC, meanwhile, began televising something called the American Football League. What was it about using the word American in its name that always seemed to render a corporation second-rate? The American Football League and the American Broadcasting Company were to the early 1960s what the American Basketball Association and the American Motors Corporation were to the 1970s, the latter two producing some ugly Pacers and seemingly little more.
Eventually, however, the underdog ABC and AFL would elevate each other. Because AFL players were largely unknown, Arledge ordered up omnipresent graphics: When Don Maynard of the New York Jets caught a
pass, his name would immediately materialize on the screen. Three plays later, when he caught another pass, his name would appear again, with an interesting factoid to let you know that this was the same guy who caught the last one and perhaps you should keep an eye on him.
''Before ESPN and CNN and talk radio, we only had the time of the game to tell all of these stories,'' explains Arledge as if talking about the Bronze Age. (In fact, at a production meeting on the day of Nixon's funeral in April, Arledge demanded that his staff acquire a list of everyone who would be in attendance at the ceremony in Yorba Linda. ''If Alexander Haig shows up,'' he said, ''I want to put on the screen ALEXANDER HAIG, NIXON'S CHIEF OF STAFF.'') The technique of on-screen graphics began in earnest with those first ABC broadcasts of the AFL. Alas for Arledge and ABC, after four years the league sold its broadcast rights to richer NBC and then, four years later, merged with the NFL.
By 1969 the NFL had played five games on Monday nights, the first of them in 1966. All five were carried by CBS, to mediocre ratings. But with ABC the odd web out on pro football games, Arledge of necessity approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about playing a game every Monday night beginning with the 1970 season. The idea had always appealed to Rozelle, who had loved the night exhibition games the Los Angeles Rams played when he was their publicist in the early '50s. ''There was something special about the spotlight hitting the players when the starting lineups were announced,'' Rozelle has said. ''It created a different aura than day football. It was decidedly more dramatic.''
Once persuaded of the idea, though, Rozelle maddeningly offered the Monday- night games to his loyal networks, CBS and NBC. But CBS took a pass: They had a hit in Mayberry RFD on Monday nights, and besides, God intended for you to go to church on Sundays, not on Monday evenings. (And make no mistake, the NFL was church: To his lasting regret Rozelle ordered the league to play on the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination, in part because a landmark television contract was in the works and in part because the league was feeling a thou-shalt-keep-holy-the-Sabbath inviolability.)
In any event NBC, which had its popular Movie of the Week on Monday nights, also spurned the offer. So ABC had football for the fall of 1970 with one condition: Arledge insisted that he be able to choose his own announcers without interference from the NFL. Television contracts in that day called for approval of network announcers by the leagues; indeed, it was only four years earlier that CBS broadcaster Jack Whitaker was thrown off the Masters' telecast by tournament officials for impudently calling the Augusta National gallery a ''mob.'' But Rozelle agreed to give a free hand to Arledge, and the first person Arledge hired for his new Monday Night Football was Howard Cosell.
A few years earlier Arledge had signed Cosell to appear as a boxing analyst on Wide World and to cover the sport at the 1968 Olympics. Cosell instantly seized a high profile with his interviews of Muhammad Ali, whom Cosell insisted on calling . . . Muhammad Ali. This was deemed outrageous and deliberately provocative, even though Muhammad Ali was the man's legal name and had been for four years. ''We've forgotten how weird some people's opinions were,'' says Arledge. Indeed, when ABC asked Ali -- who had been stripped of his heavyweight title for resisting the Vietnam draft -- to commentate on its boxing coverage, it did so despite warnings against the idea from the U.S. State Department.
In those first giddy days following those first Monday nights, Arledge had to dance a conga to his desk, sidestepping bushels of letters and telegrams tottering in piles throughout his office. He could peel one off a stack at random and invariably the missive would read, ''Get him off the air!'' Of course, ''him'' was Cosell, who later estimated that half of his mail began with the cheery salutation ''You nigger-loving Jew bastard. . . .''
The essence of the outcry was clear. ''We were desecrating something,'' says Arledge. ''CBS had Ray Scott, and now we had this loudmouthed Howard on TV questioning everything, yelling about what a dumb trade that was, and asking, 'Don't football players have rights?' And a lot of the owners just couldn't deal with it.''
It was clear, too, that television could create a collective national experience, could unite a country in something, if only in its distaste for this toupeed boor spouting polysyllables in a broadcast booth. By the fall of 1971, 30 million viewers were tuning into ABC on Monday nights.
With those kinds of numbers, it became a fait accompli: Within four years the World Series was made a primarily prime-time affair, and by 1978 the Super Bowl had also encroached on that rarefied space. Don't blame television or him, says Arledge; blame baseball and football owners: ''Because they want to get more money, and the way to get more money is to play your games in prime time.''
Sure, advertising dollars were wallpapering the networks' Sixth Avenue offices as well, but before long those dollars would return to the NFL as $10 bills. CBS paid $14 million a year to televise the NFL in 1964 and '65. By 1982 the three networks paid a combined $2.1 billion to televise NFL games for five years. By 1990 five networks paid $3.6 billion for three years. And in 1993 Rupert Murdoch and the Fox network paid $1.58 billion for the rights to televise just the National Football Conference for four years.
Football would be played no more in the CBS cathedral but in a Fox-hole where coverage will likely owe more to ABC and Arledge. In 1974, when he hired Fred (the Hammer) Williamson to briefly join the Monday Night lineup -- a position that in 1983 would be filled by a more glamorous football entity, O.J. Simpson -- Arledge noticed, on a chain around the Hammer's neck, a clenched black fist and a solid-gold penis, two items of jewelry seldom worn by Ray Scott of the CBS television network.
Arledge has occasionally been accused of creating yards of his legend from whole cloth. Tony Verna, a former director at CBS, will tell you that he and his network were first on the air with slow-motion instant replay, on an Army- Navy football telecast on New Year's Eve in 1964, though the historical record is obstinately unclear on the matter.
Certainly Arledge has known virtually every world leader and athletic giant of our time as head of the News and Sports divisions at ABC, and his is the world's grandest TV resume. But even among his myriad achievements, one stands above all as the Cape buffalo of his accomplishments. It happened in Munich in 1972.
Arledge produced 10 Olympics, and they are collectively the pride of his 25 years at ABC Sports. But the prices were dear, and he can tick off each of them to this day: Innsbruck in 1964 cost $250,000. Mexico City in 1968 cost $3 million, and that one really got to him. His colleagues thumped him on the back after he won the rights to those Games, but Arledge felt like vomiting. ''Why are you congratulating me?'' he asked. He was sick and remorseful, bedeviled by the buyer's guilt you and I might get after shelling out for a Chevette.
Munich ran $13.5 million, and four years later the '76 Games in Montreal cost $25 million, and suddenly it was all insane. ''It used to be in those days,'' says Arledge, ''that you'd rebuild an entire city if you had the Olympic Games.'' Montreal got new roads, a refurbished infrastructure and a soon-to-be-domed stadium for its two weeks before the world.
Still, there were two sticking points with the Montreal Olympic Organizing Committee as Arledge was negotiating the rights to those Games in the middle of a Quebec night. The MOOC-a-mucks demanded 1) that Cosell not be assigned to the Olympics and 2) that no mention be made of the Munich Games in ABC's coverage of the opening ceremonies.
Arledge calmly responded with a question of his own, not out of anger but with a bemused, almost clinical detachment: ''Are you out of your minds?''
The Montreal rights had drawn such a high price precisely because of what had happened in Munich. For starters, the 1972 Games had been the first to take over the whole of a network's prime-time schedule. (The Mexico City Games had been shunted to ABC's worst time-slot ghettos.) What's more, those Olympics had been a riveting athletic success: When they were over, Mark Spitz had more gold hanging from his neck than Fred (the Hammer) Williamson, and the U.S. men's basketball team had had its own gold stolen by those villainous, still-invincible emissaries from the Evil Empire in an epic final.
Yet the lower-case games themselves had become but a jot on history's seismograph after the events of Sept. 5, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in the athletes' village at 4:30 that morning.
Jim McKay, ABC's Olympic studio host, was preparing to take a dip in the hotel pool on his only day off in the fortnight when he was summoned to duty. He would be on the air for the next 18 hours, anchoring field coverage from Cosell and from Peter Jennings, the network's Beirut correspondent, who was in Munich for the Games. Citizens of the world sat gathered around their televisions, the electronic hearth hissing and spitting bad news like sparks. In the end even some relatives of the hostages themselves received the sickening news from McKay, who, wearied and wan, could say little more than, ''They're all gone.''
Within a day Arledge and his staff had produced a 40-minute instant documentary on the murders, featuring reaction from Willy Brandt and the Munich chief of police and members of the Israeli Knesset and Golda Meir. He was puzzled when, Rozelle-like, Avery Brundage ordered the Games to go on that day; he was puzzled likewise, when ABC News told him it did not want his documentary, that this was somehow still about sports. So Arledge moved all of his commercial spots in that day's Olympic programming to the beginning and middle of his show and ran the damn documentary in his own time, 40 minutes uninterrupted at the end of the Olympic program. And don't think he forgot the slight when he took over last-place ABC News (in addition to Sports) in 1978 and made it the More-Americans-Get-Their-News-from-ABC-News-Than-from-Any-Other-Source king of Broadcast Row.
Arledge's coverage from Munich ''changed television itself,'' wrote Gunther and Carter. ''From then on, whenever a catastrophe struck, viewers no longer were content to wait for film at eleven; they expected television to afford them a chance to be eyewitnesses to history.'' In short, these ''viewers'' were about to become voyeurs, a phenomenon that would seem to reach its apocalyptic apotheosis on a Friday night in the summer of 1994 when 95 million Americans stayed tuned to several networks to see if O.J. Simpson would commit suicide on the San Diego Freeway.
ABC won 29 Emmys for its Munich production. Even the president of archenemy CBS, ABC's own Evil Empire, approached Arledge at a post-Olympics luncheon in New York and congratulated him, something that just doesn't happen on the graceless weasel farm of network television. ''It was,'' Bob Wood told Arledge, ''like the nation was reading the same book together.''
He sat by, gaping like the rest of us, as CBS overpaid for baseball by half a billion dollars in 1990. He calls the NFL's most recent television contract ''a stroke of luck,'' after watching the league stuff Rupert Murdoch's money down its pants like a frenzied participant in a Dash for Dollars contest.
Arledge worries that these price tags may one day hang like toe tags on American sports. ''The basic ill in sports today has got to be money,'' he says, ''and it's ultimately going to corrupt everything. You have owners who can't control themselves giving all this money to players. You have 25-year- old kids making several million dollars a year and thinking they're entitled to it: They argue that rock stars and movie stars make that kind of money, and they're performers just like athletes are. But I would like to think there's a difference between an athlete and a rock star. Unfortunately, it may well be that as new generations come along, they won't miss the virtues that used to be at the center of sport. They may see sports only as a means to a sneaker deal.''
With all these chickens coming home to roost, doesn't this television executive feel a little like Harlan Sanders? Arledge acknowledges his and TV's place in ''the feeding chain.'' But network execs -- and team owners and athletes, for that matter -- are entrepreneurs who can do as they please. Arledge makes $3 million annually, but he also made his sports division, traditionally a loss leader for a network, eminently profitable.
It is state-sponsored sports fanaticism that he finds particularly vexing, all of these modern-day ancient Romes across America, obsessed with gladiators and lavish Colosseums. Think of all that a new NFL team will do for Charlotte, Arledge says -- wonderful, inestimable things -- but also think of all that a new NFL team will not do for that city.
''I think a question that has to be asked is, In a time of poverty and homelessness and crime and all the other problems this society has, should we be building $400 million stadiums with public funds?'' he says. ''In most cases these stadiums are publicly financed but privately profitable. And there are very few other places where that is true. It is not true of the Metropolitan Opera. We are notorious in this country for not subsidizing the arts and politics and things that we should. And yet, we do it in sports without even thinking about it. In fact, it's a hallmark. If you don't do it, you're somehow second-rate.''
In other words, you're not . . . major league. Up-and-coming cities need major league franchises to be considered major league, and they need gleaming new stadiums to attract the franchises. It is the magical mantra of the film Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. One man understood this better than any other. Nobody built a bigger field from bigger dreams than Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was himself as big as all of Texas.