Frank Deford, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer, died on Sunday at age 78. From the August 8, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, here is his profile of Howard Cosell, who gave “Monday Night Football” its voice and was the most prominent sports broadcaster of his era. Find more classic Deford stories in the SI Vault.
BY FRANK DEFORD
Quickness and momentum. You take the whole last generation of sports, listening to them, even reading about them, watching the games, analyzing them, arguing about them, instant-replaying them, second-guessing them, and all you’ll distill from them is quickness and momentum. Oh yes, the announcers also gave us a bit of mental toughness, the occasional 110%, the odd physical—as inevitably in very physical—but when all is said and done, and said again and again, and again, it was a time of quickness and momentum.
Even now, so few comprehend. About Howard Cosell, that is. Cosell does. “I have won,” he says, as is his wont. As we know. In that jejune world up in the booth—high up in the booth—only one man possesses quickness and momentum. He is not the one with the golden locks or the golden tan but the old one, shaking, sallow and hunched, with a chin whose purpose is not to exist as a chin but only to fade, so that his face may, as the bow of a ship, break the waves and not get in the way of his voice. For as long as he speaks, whoever rails at Cosell’s toupee isn’t seeing the bombs for the silos.
He’s 65 now, and he regularly makes idle threats that when his contract runs out next August, after the Olympics, he’ll pack it in. However, no one who knows him believes he’s doing anything but blowing smoke. After a couple of vodkas, Cosell is more direct. “If I quit, I die,” he says. And if he needed any more support for that position, he got it several weeks ago from Leonard Goldenson, the chairman of ABC and Cosell’s old friend. Goldenson summoned Cosell to his aerie and said, “I won’t permit you to retire. You’re ABC. You’re family.” Emmy Cosell, whom, 39 years later, Howard still calls “my bride...that girl who has been my life,” who accompanies him most everywhere, is no longer even sure that she wants him to abandon the hunt. Consider the alternatives. Even now, with two days off a week, he becomes impossible. When he’s out at their beach house in the Hamptons on Long Island, with Emmy and their daughters and grandchildren, and the phone rings and he says he’s needed back to do ABC’s bidding, everybody in the family professes sadness that he must leave. Secretly, though, they’re delighted, because he’s driving them all crazy and because they know, for himself, he must go be Howard Cosell again.
In a throwaway business, he survives; in the most imitative of businesses, he hasn’t met his match, let alone been surpassed. When others say he’s but a parody of himself, there’s even a measure of compliment in that. One thinks then of Nureyev, who once said to a carper, “I may get tired of playing Romeo, but Romeo doesn’t get tired of having me play him.” Just so, Cosell never tires of having Cosell play him.
Ultimately, he has gone beyond quickness, gone even beyond momentum, and has reached that estate all his colleagues seek in the teams they cover: He has become a dynasty. Dynasties are all but gone, gone with the Kennedys, gone with the Yankees, Packers, Steelers, Celtics, Notre Dame, UCLA, Nicklaus and Ali. Only one dynasty is left in sports, and that’s Cosell, up there in the booth, an emperor in earphones, draped in his grapefruit blazer as he looks upon the Lilliputian world below and describes it “like” he perceives it.
Edgar Scherick is a prominent movie producer now, but once, eons ago, he invented ABC Sports. Roone Arledge was Scherick’s protégé, and while Arledge had the courage and foresight to force Cosell on ABC and thereby foist him on America, it was Scherick who paved the way. Now Scherick utters a name: “Will Rogers.” Of course, he’s right. In the 20th century in the U.S., the two abiding folk figures, sui generis, have been Will Rogers and Howard Cosell.
“I know,” says Scherick, interrupting himself. “Will Rogers was beloved. Howard is not beloved. But that isn’t the point. Beloved isn’t part of the culture anymore. Nobody would even want to be beloved if he could be; it would cast aspersions on him. The point is that Will Rogers and Howard Cosell have been true originals.
“Howard is a walking conflict. He is an intelligent, sensitive and caring man. Yet he has this huge need for celebration. I employ that as the root word for celebrity. And these two things create a vortex in him that drives him. But none of that may be important anymore. What is, is that Howard means something now. He means something to this society.”
It’s not easy, either, being a social phenomenon, although it probably helps when you’re beloved and can twirl a lariat in the bargain. People set out to be President, to be champion, but no one ever sets out to be a phenomenon, and there’s no primer on hew to behave should you become one. Cosell, like everybody else, was ready to settle merely for fame and success and wealth. “I never had any idea that I—that any person in sports—could become so important in U.S. society,” he says. “Who would have dreamed it?”
What’s even more extraordinary is that Cosell has been a controversial phenomenon. He must deal not only with simple attention but with conflict as well. By contrast, Rogers was revered specifically for his equanimity; never met a man he didn’t like—yes, yes, we know whom he never met.... Furthermore, the two television notables that Cosell most often compares himself with, Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson, have survived so long primarily because they’re attractive public figures. Uncle Walter satisfied our need for Dwight Eisenhower in formaldehyde, while Carson, a master of safety even above timing, has never ventured from a world any larger than a thimble, one circumscribed by transitory jokes about Burbank, cleavage and the company cafeteria.
But Cosell has always existed with contentiousness. Or, as he would have it, “I have lived on the precipice of professional peril every day of my life.” He’s constantly courting extremes, now bathing in affection or acclaim, forever repeating his best notices, while all the while running scared, protesting too much, playing the classic role of the lawyer who chooses to defend himself, thereby showing that he has a fool for a client. Cosell remains, even now, baffled by rejection. “He has almost a childlike inability to comprehend that he won’t make friends everywhere,” says his daughter, Hilary. 31. Arledge has said, “Most of the problems between us come from his insecurity.” When ABC picked up Cosell’s option again a few months ago—could there have been any question?—he was suddenly euphoric around the office, walking on air. His young staffers were mystified until they discovered that his elation stemmed from the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to get canned.
Cosell can recall verbatim passing criticism from years ago, the one negative sentence in a sea of praise, but he’ll never credit the author for the rest. “I’ve often told Howard he should be more forgiving of others,” says Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, one of Cosell’s closest friends. But to no avail. “I don’t apologize for that,” says Cosell. Criticism, he’s sure, is only “fanned” by jealous and dull-witted print naysayers.
Cosell seldom encounters those many fans who profess to despise him. His reception in public is invariably warm, even adoring. He’s such engaging company that he can enthrall any gathering he joins, which he knows full well and relentlessly enjoys proving. Those who are close to him, and who have never crossed him, agree that he’s a gracious, even good, man, blemished only by a massive ego and insecurity—each of which is, of course, the flip side of the other.
The television Cosell is not turned on. Off the air, save for being even more overwhelming and for exhibiting much more humor, he is the same person. Here, for example, is a typical Cosell filibuster, delivered over cocktails after someone at the table casually alluded to the competition Monday Night Football has faced through the years: “Precisely! And how do you think it was, going against M*A*S*H and Alan Alda, who has, I might add, embarked on a new series, a man I became especially close to, a conscientious family man who still resides in Leonia, New Jersey—a house you should see—and a man whose wife I know well because of my interest in her campaign, which she is devoted to so wholeheartedly. I am speaking, of course, in reference to her campaign on behalf of women’s rights, which I became an integral part of, and I chanced to be on the same airplane with Alan on one occasion as we winged our way from Los Angeles to New York, and we found ourselves seated next to one another, and Alan began the conversation by alluding to that very point, how when M*A*S*H found itself aligned against Monday Night....”
The humor, that part of Cosell seldom expressed on the air—and colleagues have urged him to exhibit it more—is rarely biting. Instead, it’s teasing, even sophomoric. “I’m so sorry to hear about your paternity suit” is one of his greetings. Or upon meeting the sales manager’s wife, he may say, “How regrettable that you married beneath yourself, my dear.” Tee-hee. He flirts with waitresses and stewardesses in broad burlesque, while Emmy’s eyes roll up into her head. Not again! He plays benignly for giggles, not guffaws.
Yet on the air Cosell seems almost to court animosity, after all these years still never showing the slightest tendency to be mollescent in those familiar places where he infuriates—stepping on lines, big-wording, declaiming, dropping diminutives, nailing his law degree to every wall. Then again, perhaps he appreciates that the bits and pieces his detractors rail at are only that, that in sum he’s so different, so unmatched in his trade, that no amount of tinkering with his act would matter for those predisposed to dislike his overall style. In the first game on Monday Night Football, Sept. 21, 1970, Leroy Kelly of the Browns eked out 62 yards on 20 carries. In the second half Cosell said, “Leroy Kelly has not been a compelling factor tonight.” The switchboards at ABC lit up, and for days Cosell was castigated in the press for his ignorance and callousness in making such an intemperate remark. So, why should he bother to accommodate the critics? As it is, something like one of every eight letters written to ABC about a personality concerns Cosell. No wonder he could say five years ago, “I am the most hated man on the face of the earth,” and then, moments later, cite voluminous reports to prove his preeminent popularity.
No, it’s not easy being a phenomenon.
What makes a phenomenon is itself phenomenal, a conjunction of coincidence and uniqueness. As Cosell the man is so much a child of his place (the Brooklyn of yore) and of his time (the Depression), so is Cosell the television figure a product of more recent mundane circumstance. Don Ohlmeyer, the former head of NBC Sports, refers to Cosell as being dominant in “the golden age of network sports.” Ohlmeyer then hastens to add that that epoch has passed. Both the novelty and the monopoly of the three networks have so diminished that it’s unlikely one personality, no matter how special, will ever again be so important. Cosell is the first and last of a line.
Once upon a time an American President visited China, and Peter Jenkins of The Guardian included in one of his reports to London that “On the second day of Mr. Cronkite’s visit to China, Richard Nixon, who is accompanying him, went to....” So it is with Cosell and sports. Tom Shales of The Washington Post, the most respected TV critic in the country, once wrote, “Howard Cosell is not providing the commentary for the sporting event; the sporting event is providing commentary for Howard Cosell.” On Mr. Cosell’s second day at the World Series, the Dodgers and Yankees, who are accompanying him....
It also helped that when Cosell came to TV he was utterly in contrast to the toothy myrmidons who reigned at the microphone and who spoke no evil save for the mayhem they regularly perpetrated upon the English language. Sports broadcasting was even more humorless and liturgical when Cosell broke in than it is now, although certainly it is still mired in the horse latitudes of journalism. The other day a young woman dodged through the traffic on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue to reach Cosell, whom she had espied leaving the ABC Building. “Mr. Cosell,” she said, “I have a friend who wants to be a sports announcer. How can he succeed?”
“Is he a former All-American athlete, my dear?” asked Cosell. She shook her head. “Is he a guttural illiterate?” Again she shook her head. “I’m sorry,” said Cosell, offering his deep commiseration, “then there is no home for your friend in this business.”
Finally, Cosell came late to a young man’s game, bringing maturity and perspective, a game plan, if you will. He was in his mid-30s, with a successful New York City law practice, when he decided to take a shot at broadcasting. But make no mistake: He perfectly understood what hurdles lay in his path and how he must surmount them. He created Howard Cosell right from the first. Red Barber recalls Cosell’s telling him how he understood it was too late for him to have a play-by-play career, to be in the traditional glamour spot. No, he would have to carve out a whole new dominion. Ray Robinson, the executive editor of Seventeen, then ran a small men’s magazine called Real. Cosell had dabbled as a sportswriter as early as high school—his column was titled, of all things, Speaking of Sports—and he badgered Robinson into letting him write a column in Real to help make ends meet while Cosell tried to break into radio. It was called Cosell’s Clubhouse, and it featured a drawing of Cosell emerging from a doghouse. In the sketch, Robinson recalls, Cosell resembled “an aardvark.”
Robinson accompanied Cosell south for spring training in 1955. “I was his Gunga Din for a while,” Robinson recalls. “He was schlepping this heavy equipment all over Florida.” Keep in mind that this was the dark ages of electronics. Tape recorders were veritable trunks; Cosell’s original weighed something like 30 pounds. But he would lug it from camp to camp, picking up as many as 60 or 70 interviews a day.
In a typical moment of pride Cosell will declare, “I changed the face of television sports.” That’s a vast overstatement, because nothing approaching him has followed him. Invariably overlooked, however, is the fact that Cosell did change the face of radio sportscasting. In many ways he’s a more natural radio than television performer. As he points out, his voice on radio is all the more authoritative and dramatic for not having to compete with visual images. Cosell will concede that only news commentator Paul Harvey possesses a more effective radio presence than his own.
When Cosell first staggered into locker rooms weighted down by his gear, radio sports was still a studio enterprise. Only after him came the transistors and an army of young imitators attached to microphones, invading newspaper territory, thrusting their mikes into athletes’ faces. They so irritated the astonished old print journalists that reporters such as Dick Young, a sports columnist for the New York Daily News at the time, used to spew out vulgarities whenever the microphones appeared, thereby rendering useless the radio man’s tape of the interview.
By the late ‘60s, Cosell had achieved prominence on both radio and television. “The ‘60s were really my birth,” he says, “the time of the anti-hero. The ‘60s were just right for me.” It hadn’t been easy, but then, neither was Cosell surprised by his success. Robinson remembers a conversation during that spring training of ‘55, when Cosell was an absolute unknown, when even what he was doing was unknown. “I’m going to be the top sports guy in television,” he summarily announced to Robinson.
“Easy,” replied Cosell. “The rest of them are all asses.”
This will answer your question: Has success changed Howard Cosell?
The first thing you must understand about Cosell and what possesses him is that he is innately conservative. Politics aside, he is to the right of Queen Victoria, or Vicky, as he would call her over the air. He was the commander of his American Legion post after World War II. Israel was just getting off the ground then, and one night the subject of emigrating there came up. Howard is Jewish; Emmy, who isn’t, thought it might make an exciting challenge for a young family to settle in Israel. Incredulous, Howard said, “Why would I do that? I’m American.” His allegedly subversive campaigns—supporting Muhammad Ali’s right to the heavyweight title while Ali was resisting the draft being the most significant—all devolve from his belief in basic American rights, such as due process and freedom of speech.
Cosell prides himself on being an exemplar—yea, a captive—of the Protestant work ethic, and he’s not tolerant of sloth in others. He never fails to do his homework, including reading his guests’ books, before conducting interviews on his weekly radio show, Speaking of Everything. Around ABC Sports he is referred to as Coach, and is heartily admired by camera crews and technicians for his professionalism. Never is Cosell more impressive than when doing one of his several daily five-minute radio broadcasts. He will casually interrupt a conversation; stride down to the studio, perhaps slowing en route to pick up a bit of wire-service copy; and in a moment or two, without any apparent preparation, lay down his cigar and deliver a crisp, even trenchant, extemporaneous report, embellishing it with his own opinions and bringing it home in its allotted time to the split second. He then will pick up his cigar, retrace his steps and resume whatever conversation he had been engaged in when he paused to address America. Cosell’s memory is legendary, but it’s only a tool; reliability is the measure of this pro.
He was a strict parent and remains, in his sexual mores, “downright old-fashioned,” according to his wife. He can be a scold on the subject. In a business in which philandering is hardly uncommon, whatever Cosell has been accused of—all the cheap shots—never has it been suggested that he has ever strayed from Emmy. “He gets plenty of chances, too,” says Hilary. “Women find my father very attractive. There’s sex in his power and charisma. It’s only the men who write about his toupee and his big nose.” Years ago at a party in Las Vegas, Emmy caught a rather buxom admirer overdoing a welcoming kiss—”You know, she made it to the mouth,” she says—and she has never let Howard forget it.
He constantly alludes to his family. Sometimes, for no reason at all, he will suddenly complain, “Oh, I wish Emmy were here.” Or: “I want to be with my family now.” He is an unabashed professional grandfather. Amid the scores of photographs of his grandchildren on display in his Manhattan apartment and in his office at ABC, he has only two pictures of athletes. The one in his den is of Ali, with the inscription “You’re a big man.” The other, in his office, is of Steve Cauthen, who was in a way a surrogate grandchild. When Cosell’s own family was younger and the family lived in the suburbs, his favorite pastimes were playing gin rummy with the neighborhood guys, and walking in the woods with his Irish setter and his two daughters while reading to his girls from his favorite poets, Keats, Shelley and Coleridge.
“Well, I think you have my story,” Cosell said the first time he was interviewed, in The Sporting News of Aug. 10, 1955. “I have two daughters. I am happily married. I like to help people.”
This will answer your question: Has success changed Howard Cosell?
Howard and Emmy moved back into Manhattan in 1970. They live in a handsome, but far from opulent, apartment on the East Side. When not dining out—”If Howard Cosell had lunch, breakfast and dinner with everybody he brags about on Monday Night Football, he’d weigh 723 pounds,” Joe Garagiola once said—the Cosells usually have a couple of drinks and supper, watch TV or read and then turn out the lights at 9:30 like an old farm couple. Cosell is usually up by 5:30, and on many mornings the first words out of his mouth, spoken in a loud Paul Harvey voice, are, “Well, dear, I’m awake and I’m getting up, but I won’t disturb you.” Then, hopelessly awake, Emmy rises to join him.
However, as much as Cosell is devoted to his family, he is just as loyal to another great love: his store—ABC. It’s no coincidence that his own parents were never happy together and that he made a full marriage his first priority. But neither should the deep impression the Depression made on him be overlooked: his father often out of work, the electricity sometimes switched off, and—more subtle, but possibly most important—the juxtaposition of his own impoverishment and the relative comfort of school friends and other branches of his family.
The American Dream is usually portrayed as the vision of an abjectly poor kid. More often, though, the kids most determined to move up are those on the fringes of middle-class comfort, those who can see the next rung on the ladder, not merely imagine it. Such was Cosell as a boy. He lived near Eastern Parkway and knew some of the well-off “Eastern Parkway Jews.” He could envision himself out of his family’s walk-up and right there on Eastern Parkway, too.
All that Cosell’s parents, Isadore and Nellie, ever wanted for him was “a profession,” which meant, by process of elimination, the law, because, as Emmy says, “Certainly Howard could never have been a doctor.” Isadore rolled over 90-day notes to help his son through New York University Law School, and Howard made it. He built a practice and even leapfrogged Eastern Parkway into Manhattan. Then, after 10 years, he made the decision of his life: He junked it all to take a flyer on sports broadcasting.
Until his death in 1957, Isadore kept asking Emmy when Howard would come to his senses and return to “the profession.” However, for Howard, leaving the law was never as agonizing as abandoning the safe income it brought him. Cosell was never all that keen on practicing law; he was too impatient for such a meticulous discipline. When he got out of the Army, in which he served as a major, he would have preferred a secure job with a large company, but in big business at that time, many doors were closed to Brooklyn Jews. So: the law. It paid the bills, and then he dared give it up.
To this day, ask Cosell why he never left sports, for all that he disparages them, puts them down as inconsequential, and second he says, “I stayed in sports because I realized I had become very special, and I had the gnawing sense that I was achieving something. I’m proud of the impact I’ve had on the American people.” But that response follows this one: “Number one, there was the money for my family.”
Emmy says, “Howard will go to his grave thinking that he never accomplished all that much. He’s satisfied only that he provided well for his family.”
ABC made that possible a decade ago, when it signed him to his first network contract. Cosell speaks of the network in dear, almost precious tones, regularly referring to it as “my company” or even “we,” as if it were some quaint little family business turning out widgets somewhere. For all his independence, he’s strictly a company man.
While Cosell never fails to credit Arledge for his part in his success, his greatest devotion is to Goldenson. Cosell often refers to Goldenson as “a man who has been like a father to me.” By contrast, Cosell has “very ambivalent” feelings about Arledge. He charges that Arledge reneged on a commitment to name Cosell co-anchor of the ABC Evening News and host of 20/20 when Arledge added the presidency of the network’s news operation to his sports portfolio four years ago. “You must understand that Roone is incredibly celebrity conscious and would like to have been the person I am,” says Cosell. Arledge, for his part, must be very ambivalent about Cosell. He sends back word that he no longer has the time to discuss Mr. Cosell.
When Scherick brought Arledge to ABC in 1960, it was a distant third on network row. Until then, sports television was in the main a rather tidy little Manhattan club. It was essentially WASP-Irish—CBS or NBC bringing us the Yankees in another Subway Series every fall, an NFL built around the Giants and boxing that emanated mostly from Madison Square Garden. As for the rest of the country, well, it had Notre Dame, didn’t it?
“And then,” Scherick says, “here comes this rather unattractive Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn” knocking at the clubhouse door.
Scherick was soon told, “Eye to eye: Under no conditions was I to hire Cosell.” Then as now, the question was begged: How much of the anti-Cosell feeling is grounded in his being Jewish? On that subject, even Cosell is for once unsure. “My father’s been very naive about it,” says Hilary. Certainly, though, he’s no stranger to anti-Semitism. “I was called a sheeny, everything,” he says. Then, with a glow, he recalls the highlight of his athletic career—getting the winning hit in a stickball game between the Eastern Parkway Jews and the local Irish Catholics.
Curiously, while Cosell is the grandson of a rabbi, he wasn’t raised in a religious family, and the abiding heritage from his grandfather is not the Talmud but gin rummy, which the old gentleman taught him. Cosell wasn’t even Bar Mitzvahed, although his family was aggrieved when he chose Emmy, a shiksa, as his wife, just as her Philadelphia Presbyterian father was distressed by her choice of Howard. “But I became the most important thing in his life,” says Cosell, completing this tale of his father-in-law.
“That’s absurd, Howard,” snaps Emmy, straightaway putting an end to that untruth and showing, in the process, why she has been able to stay married to him for 39 years.
“It’s very simple,” says Hilary. “My father can’t function without my mother. Of course, in contrast to him, everybody has made her out to be a madonna, which just isn’t true. She’s a very tough lady—very bright, but with a cynical, sarcastic streak.”
Before Emmy left the safe haven of suburbia to join the WACs, she had known one Jew in her life. And Cosell, when he first spied her at a Brooklyn Army base, thought she looked like June Allyson, the quintessential blonde WASP movie virgin. Emmy thought she had never encountered a man with such “brashness and drive,” except perhaps for her own headstrong father. They raised Hilary and her older sister, Jill, in an open, humanist home, one devoid of organized religion. The girls occasionally went to different churches or temple with friends, and today Jill is a baptized Christian, while Hilary characterizes herself as “a raving Zionist.” She was recently married and, following a 4½-year career as a producer at NBC Sports, is writing a book. Jill, divorced, has four children, the grandchildren.
Cosell’s own sense of Jewishness was revived by the horrors of the Munich Olympic massacre. He was, at the time, so obviously beside himself that Arledge kept him off camera and let Jim McKay handle the reporting. Subsequently, Cosell’s identity with Israel has heightened, and at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Howard Cosell Center for Physical Education is currently being built in honor of his support of the school. At a luncheon announcing this project, Cosell said, “I know how deeply Jewish I am now, even though I married a Gentile girl who has been my life.”
All of the foregoing personal advisory is, of course, academic when it comes to people’s perception of Cosell as a Jew. or to borrow from Alfred Kazin, “the New York Jew.” Or “the New York kike,” as Hilary bluntly says she knows many Americans view her father. Certainly, this isn’t to infer that all who dislike Cosell are, ipso facto, anti-Semitic. Pointedly, some of his sharpest critics have been Jewish, most recently David Halberstam and, inevitably, Young, who’s now with the New York Post. Someone at Young’s paper once wrote that he “stalks Cosell as Inspector Javert did Jean Valjean.”
Significantly, like Cosell himself, many Jews in TV are reluctant to link the antipathy many viewers feel toward him to religious prejudice. Many Gentiles, on the other hand, think the connection demonstrably clear, which suggests the obvious: that while Jews may fear anti-Semitism, non-Jews know best the extent of its existence. Typical is Beano Cook, ABC’s college football analyst. “There’s just no question,” says Cook. “You can’t avoid the fact that a lot of the anti-Howard stuff is anti-Semitic. All I ever hear is, ‘The Jews run television.’ And he’s such a visible target. People who don’t like me on television say I’m irreverent. I know damn well if my name were Goldstein, they wouldn’t say I was irreverent, they’d say I was another wise-ass Jew, like that Howard Cosell.”
Clearly, Cosell’s identification with Ali turned an element of America against him, escalating his regular Jew-bastard mail into nigger-loving/Jew-bastard mail. Not surprisingly, no group seems to regard him with as much affection as blacks do. On one memorable occasion, a couple of years ago in Kansas City, as Cosell’s limousine cruised through a black neighborhood on the way to his hotel, it drew past a street fight. Cosell bade the driver to stop, alighted into the midst of the melee and, like a modern deus ex machina, instantly brought the hostilities to a close with his mere presence. He then admonished the participants, distributed autographs, returned to the car and proceeded on his way.
Of course, to many viewers Cosell isn’t symbolic or representative of anything. He’s simply a know-it-all. The law of television sport is that only former jocks, men who hit .238 years ago, are allowed to render opinion. The civilians in the booth, their brains in their adenoids, aren’t supposed to harbor thought. Cosell has become controversial not so much because he might be wrong in what he says, or even in how he says it, but because, deep inside, so many viewers believe that he hasn’t earned the right to speak up.
In a way, it’s not so much that Cosell has stepped on toes in the broadcast booth, but that he has usurped the territory formerly owned by the sports fans themselves. The whole point of being a sports fan is to have an opinion, and argue with other sports fans. But here came an announcer who had never split a seam in his life, and here he was spewing opinions and making statements. Sports fans couldn’t argue among themselves at the bar anymore. Instead, they had to argue with Howard Cosell. Or worse than that, the alternative: They had to agree with Howard Cosell.
Chet Simmons, commissioner of the USFL and former head of NBC Sports and ESPN, admits that he “fervently wished” the USFL could have prevailed on Cosell to work the league’s ABC games. “You see,” says Simmons, “most of the time Howard says what the fan wants to say—only he hasn’t got the guts to say it himself.”
There is, then, a certain amount of schizophrenia inherent in the way much of the population regards Cosell. No wonder the famous TV Guide poll of five years ago found him, indisputably, the most liked and disliked announcer in sports. The mere mention of his name, particularly when it is spit out in imitation of the man himself—HOW-WUD KO-SSSELL—has become a code word, like Dolly Parton or Herbert Hoover. In the classic way of a phenomenon, the image by now has far outdistanced the professional, not to mention the person.
For all the contention that attends him, Cosell prefers to cling to one elementary conclusion. “There’s no mystery,” says Cosell. “It is only attacks by a certain coterie of print people that make me controversial. I never attain that status with thoughtful people.”
No doubt part of this posture is pride, part of it defensive reaction, part of it delusion, a manifestation of a “childlike” innocence to which Hilary refers. On the other hand, without question Cosell is not hallucinating when he sees the print media after him. He would hardly be the first multimillionaire TV star to be set upon by the poor ink-stained wretches. Moreover, the attacks upon Cosell have been vigorously renewed since he came out in strident opposition to boxing last fall. Young, who for years had castigated “Howie the Shill” for touting ABC bouts, dismissed Cosell’s protests against the brutality and corruption in the ring as “Salvation Army rhetoric.”
No one has ever been a more flammable burnt offering for those who would roast him in the press than Cosell. If sportswriters were as all-powerful as Cosell howls they are, Pete Rozelle would have a lifetime, no-cut contract to rule the world. Even when a cowardly bunch of frustrated Baltimore thugs rocked the limousine Cosell was riding in after the Orioles lost a World Series game in 1979, he refused to blame the hoodlums. Instead, he assigned responsibility to a Baltimore columnist, who, Cosell maintains, had stirred the gullible masses against him. Later that same night, in the bar at the Cross Keys Inn, in a loud and celebrated argument with Pete Axthelm, the Newsweek sports columnist, Cosell not only lambasted Young—”that master of vendetta and vilification”—but also attacked Red Smith, a beloved avatar among sportswriters. This sacrilege eroded Cosell’s reputation in the print world all the more.
Cosell is certainly not the only one in his profession to attribute almightiness to the print media. His contemporaries in television, especially those who grew up in a newspaper environment, have a curious tendency, as Ohlmeyer points out, “to be more impressed with the written word than the people who write it are.” To be sure, as a man of words in a medium of smiles, a man of thought in a medium of reaction, Cosell seems in some crevasse of his soul almost to identify more with the enemy writing press than with broadcasting.
Sometimes, rather than holding television responsible for making what he considers a bad decision, he’ll blame newspapers instead. For example, Cosell is convinced that the jackals of the sporting press, not the public, drove sportscasters Chris Schenkel and Curt Gowdy from their perches of eminence. Conversely: “Print was what made it safe for the networks to stay with a Gifford or a Whitaker because those were precisely the kind of announcers the networks knew wouldn’t get criticized.” Also, according to Cosell, when Arledge broke his word about making Cosell news co-anchor, Arledge didn’t change his mind but merely lost his nerve, fearful of what the newspaper critics would say.
Cosell picks up a huge cigar, one that would fit neatly into Dale Murphy’s bat rack, and lights it, his hands trembling. His critics have seized cruelly on his shakes. In fact, they have been a common defect in the family for generations, and Hilary and Jill have already blithely bet each other which of them will develop the affliction first. Then Cosell lies flat-out on the sofa. He is on the road again, working, but Emmy is with him, as ever, napping next door in the bedroom of their suite. He would see the grandchildren next weekend at the summer house. His office has just phoned and, yes, all the right people have called. His world is nailed down.
“True,” says Cosell, “criticism did give me fits at one time, in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s. But only intellectually. Criticism only substantively affected my life in the matter of my running for the Senate [as a Democrat, in 1976, for the New York seat Daniel Moynihan subsequently won]. I would have accepted that challenge, except that my family begged me not to subject us to the vilification we would have had to endure from certain elements of the print media over a long campaign.
“But, in my own mind, I would have won. Ultimately, you see, people believe in me. I’ve got the public, its respect, its love, its adulation.
“I’ve never been so secure or so sure in my professional life as I am right now. When I saw the sort of people who criticized my decision not to do any more boxing, that’s when I knew for certain it was over. When they openly lined up with the sleaze, the crooks, I knew I’d won. I’ve won. I’ve beat them—conclusively. In fact, if anything, I miss being bothered by them, because now I lack the sustaining challenge they always provided me.”
In Cosell’s office—THE RAT RACE IS OVER/THE RATS WON says the sign on the wall—his phone is continually lit with calls to and from the athletic high and mighty. “Sometimes I think this is the sports headquarters of the world,” he says rather diffidently, as if the thought has just crossed his mind. But then, later, in his more normal tone: “The one thing I can do is produce people. Barbara Walters is the only other person in this business who can deliver people the way I can. I can produce anyone in sports at anytime.” He pauses, and continues a bit sheepishly, “Well, maybe not Alvin.” Alvin is NFL Commissioner Rozelle. Cosell’s closeness to Al Davis, Rozelle’s archenemy, has been at the expense of the friendship Cosell used to enjoy with the commissioner.
Cosell is at home in all the highest echelons. He’s intrigued by politics, and now that he doesn’t have to practice law, dot all the i’s, jurisprudence is even more appealing. If he had stayed at the bar, he would, he says, like to have become an Edward Bennett Williams. But then, show business, Cosell says, is “my element.” According to Cosell, Danny Kaye has said The Howard Cosell Story “would make a hell of a movie.” Jerry Orbach has advanced the same idea for a musical on The Great White Way. Any dinner is a guaranteed success if Cosell is toastmaster. Shortly before Cronkite retired from CBS, whom, in all the world, did he want to emcee a dinner in his honor? Howard Cosell of ABC. Charities line up for him, largely because the word is out he’s a soft touch for any good cause—”a real pussycat,” says Jimmy The Greek. In an informal way, Cosell, the sports guy—-not one of the news side heavies or corporate bigwigs—is deployed as envoy to the world for the American Broadcasting Company.
So well connected is Cosell that he must constantly walk a personal tightrope, inasmuch as so many of his more sensitive stories and editorials involve pals. “In my own mind, I never sacrificed a truth in the name of friendship,” he says stoutly, knowing he is being scrutinized especially carefully now because even some of his admirers think his friendship with Davis has colored his views about Davis’ moving the Raiders from Oakland.
That kind of insinuation wounds Cosell. He is thin-skinned. He really would like to be Will Rogers, beloved, Mister Softee. But attacks upon his journalism strike deeper than those that go only to his style or personality. Monday Night Football, for example, may have enhanced his fame the most, and Cosell’s light, like Tinker Bell’s, would go out if people didn’t applaud him upon that fluffy stage, week after week. But he has no pretense about the meaning of such accolades. Monday Night Football is no more than modern vaudeville, or his version of the old Chautauqua circuit. Cosell doesn’t even cite it among his major accomplishments.
Ah, but by contrast, “Sportsbeat will be my legacy,” he says. That’s his TV sports news show, and it is indeed an enterprising and significant piece of journalism. However, many faithful Monday Night viewers probably don’t even know it exists, because ABC buries it on Saturday afternoons amid the tenpins and Kelvinator races. But no matter: Sportsbeat is Cosell’s pride and joy. He wouldn’t let them call it Howard Cosell’s Sportsbeat or something like that, which would trumpet his name for ratings. No, the show is his bequest.
He will, of course, be remembered for other things. Most extraordinary among them: the fact that anyone in sports, let alone a noncombatant, could achieve such prominence. It would not be fair to say that Cosell has transcended the games and the stars he has covered, but it is quite correct to say that by now, to most people, he and sports are inseparable. Howard Cosell has come to stand for sports in the latter part of the 20th century in the U.S.
To belabor the point that he is of television is to miss the main point, too. In many ways he is anti-television. Dan Rather pulling on a sweater and thereby winning a whole new chunk of the populace: That’s television. President Reagan’s press conferences: That’s television. Keith Jackson is television. So are Kermit the Frog, instant replay and the Fiesta Bowl. Good Morning America is television to a fare-thee-well. But not Cosell. Oh, to be sure, he learned to use television, as before that he learned how to use his voice. The trick that he figured out is how to look out of the tube, to grab the viewer, to shake him. Most everybody else in TV thinks the idea is just to be passive, to let people look in, at them, on them. No wonder we tire so quickly of most television people.
No, first and foremost, Howard Cosell is sports. There are all these people, these fans, who claim that when Cosell does a game on television, they turn off the sound on the TV and listen to the radio broadcast. Oh, sure. You probably know critics in your neighborhood who vow the same thing. Well, too bad for them. Don’t they understand? Cosell isn’t television. He’s not audio. Howard Cosell is sports in our time. Feel sorry for the people who turn off the sound. The poor bastards missed the game.
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