Cosell, Howard (1918-1995)

views updated

Cosell, Howard (1918-1995)

Identified as the foremost sports television journalist of the 1970s, Howard Cosell consistently distinguished himself from the field by his presentation and content. He was, as a TV Guide poll in the 1970s revealed, both the most popular and the least popular sportscaster of his day. Though Cosell proclaimed that he was "just telling it like it is," his careful manipulation of his image helped to make him a celebrity in his own right.

Born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1918, Cosell grew up in Brooklyn, New York, attended law school, and opened his own Manhattan firm. His clientele included several actors and athletes, the most famous being Willie Mays. Cosell also represented the Little League of New York, a connection that soon landed him his first broadcasting job. In 1953, Cosell began hosting a Saturday morning program for ABC in which kids asked sports questions of professional athletes.

Cosell cut his teeth as a boxing commentator for ABC in the 1960s. Cosell critiqued everything in sight that would provide him with fan appeal and approval, yet his career was most clearly tied to the emergence of Muhammad Ali. For many viewers, Cosell's voice provided the soundtrack as The Greatest "floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee." The sportscaster served as one of Ali's chief defenders when he was stripped of his title after refusing to join the military due to religious beliefs. Cosell's public support was direct: "What the government did to this man was inhuman and illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Nobody says a damned word about the professional football players who dodged the draft. But Muhammad was different; he was black and he was boastful." Cosell covered the sport of boxing until 1982. After a particularly brutal heavyweight bout, Cosell walked away from the sport, saying: "Boxing is the only sport in the world where the clear intention is for one person to inflict bodily harm upon the other person…." Evidently, the smooth moves of Ali had prohibited Cosell from realizing this basic reality earlier.

In the late 1960s, ABC President Roone Arledge, who was well known for his innovative ideas in sports broadcasting, approached Cosell with what many observers considered a ridiculous idea: would he like to host an evening sporting event that competed for prime-time viewers? Cosell teamed with Don Meridith and Frank Gifford to introduce Monday Night Football in 1970. Led by Cosell, the program became a kind of traveling road show as fans flocked around the broadcast booth, either to praise Cosell or damn him. Cosell's witty and sometimes caustic exchanges with his fellow broadcasters often drew more attention than the games themselves. Monday Night Football became—improbably—one of the most talked about programs of the 1970s.

Though he had a long record of support for civil rights and had offered prominent support to the protests of black runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Cosell drew the wrath of viewers when, while watching Washington Redskin's receiver Alvin Garrett carry the ball during one Monday Night Football broadcast, he said "Look at that little monkey run." Hounded by critics, Cosell eventually left the broadcast booth in 1984, claiming that pro football had become a "stagnant bore." Cosell briefly hosted a program called Sportsbeat (1985), but the publication of his autobiography I Never Played the Game —which contained scathing criticisms of many ABC personnel—soon led to the program's cancellation. Cosell broadcast intermittently on radio thereafter and retired in 1992, reportedly bitter about his exclusion from a profession he helped to create. He died on April 23, 1995.

No matter the sport he covered, Cosell's trademark was a steady flow of language unmatched in the trade. He refused to simplify his terminology, often using his nasal voice to introduce polysyllabic words into the foreign area of the boxing ring. He left the game description for his ex-jock colleagues, and he blazed the trail of the commentator role that has become standard in modern broadcasting. Arledge discussed Cosell in 1995: "He became a giant by the simple act of telling the truth in an industry that was not used to hearing it and considered it revolutionary." This knack grew directly from what others called an "over-blown ego." When Cosell misspoke about the game, his colleagues would call him to task. The irrepressible Cosell would typically respond with his well-known "heh, heh, heh" admission.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Barber, Red. The Broadcasters. New York, DaCapo Press, 1986.

Cosell, Howard, with Peter Bonventre. I Never Played the Game. New York, Morrow, 1985.

Sinks, Charles. Up Close. Tarpon Springs, Artist Resource Group, 1993.