Sportscasting had never before known the likes of Howard Cosell, nor is it likely to see another like him again. He became an enormous figure despite the fact that he was verbose, egotistical, decidedly untelegenic, outspoken about controversial issues, and oblivious to the feelings of others. These negative attributes were almost equally balanced by his intelligence, work ethic, social commitment, and ability to entertain. As a radio and television commentator, Cosell became one of the best-known voices and faces in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, during which time he was loved and hated in seemingly equal measure. The highest point in his career came when he appeared on ABC television's Monday Night Football, helping to establish it as one of the most successful shows in television history. But Cosell did more than increase ratings for televised sports, he also introduced a journalistic approach to the subject. Most notably, he addressed the issue of race in sports and became a vocal supporter of boxer Muhammad Ali when he was censured for evading the draft. The sportscaster's inability to temper his criticisms ultimately shortened his career, however. His 1985 autobiography I Never Played the Game contained such harsh appraisals of his ABC colleagues that it effectively ended his television career.
Born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Cosell grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When he chose to study law at New York University, he was following the wishes of his parents, Isidore and Nellie Cohen, rather than his own interest in newspaper reporting. After serving as editor of the Law Review and making Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated in 1940 and took a job with a successful law firm. However, he was soon called to serve in World War II. He enlisted in the Army and was stationed at the New York Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn, where he became one of the youngest in the Army to earn the rank of major during the war. Having legally changed his name while a law student, Cosell also met and married WAC sergeant Mary Edith "Emmy" Abrams while he served at the Port. The Cosells would have a long and devoted marriage, in which Emmy served as Howard's emotional bedrock.
After leaving the Army, Cosell somewhat reluctantly returned to practicing law. For eight years he had his own private practice in Manhattan, serving clients including actors and athletes. He worked for the Little League of New York, a connection that led to his being
asked in 1953 to line up Little League players for an ABC radio show in which kids would ask questions of major league players. Cosell was soon cast as the show's unpaid host, and he became involved in snagging star players as well as making sure they were asked the right questions. On one program, Hank Bauer complained about having been benched by coach Casey Stengel , proving that players were responding to questions that they would have balked at if asked by a reporter. The success of the approach earned Cosell a longer time slot and extended the show's proposed six-week run into six years.
Career at ABC
In 1956 Cosell left his law practice to do five-minute weekend radio broadcasts for ABC. With Emmy's support, he quit a job that earned him almost $30,000 a year to take a six-week, two hundred-and-fifty dollar contract. Cosell's prospects horrified his father, who, until his death in 1957, pleaded with his daughter-in-law to convince Howard to return to the law. Indeed his son was an unusual figure in the broadcast ranks, in both appearance and behavior. Rather homely and balding, Cosell put on a toupee for his television broadcasts. As Myron Cope reported in a 1967 Sports Illustrated article, the toupee stayed in Cosell's coat pocket until he arrived at the studio. Cosell's voice, which would become widely imitated by entertainers and viewers, was nasal, harsh, and staccato. But if Cosell's first impression paled in comparison to those of his more polished colleagues, he soon overshadowed them in his pursuit of sports stories.
When Cosell entered the profession, the "rip-and-read" style of sportscasting was common, in which the sportscaster read statistics and facts as provided by the wire services. Cosell, however, was determined to provide more commentary and in-depth coverage. He would become famous for telling viewers that he would "tell it like it is." For his radio programs, Cosell began taping interviews on location before the advent of the cassette recorder. That meant carrying a thirty-pound tape recorder on his back. Cope noted that such determined behavior was rare; he wrote, "Cosell's forward progress stems from the fact that, alone among sportscasters of national stature, he works at his trade. He goes out and looks for news and personalities, instead of waiting for gossip at Toots Shor's." Within a year, Cosell was appearing in Sports Focus, a commentary program on evening television that was introduced as a summer replacement for Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. In 1961 he was made the evening sports reporter on New York's WABCTV. Soon thereafter Cosell began announcing boxing matches for ABC's Wide World of Sports. He was quickly making his way up the ladder at the network, despite the fact that he was disliked by some at ABC and faced racial prejudice as a Jew.
A big part of Cosell's success was his revolutionary use of the interview format. He asked difficult questions, as well as gave athletes the opportunity to make personal observations. He also created additional drama by using an accusatory tone. Chet Forte, a Columbia basketball star who would later work with Cosell as a producer for ABC, remembered Cosell telling him not to worry about what he would be asked in an interview. But as Forte recalled in Sports Illustrated, Cosell's first question was "Chet, is it true that some of your teammates hate to pass to you because you shoot so much?" He was also notorious for listening carefully to responses and pressing the interviewee to elaborate on ambiguous or half-hearted comments. Being interviewed by Cosell was often a daunting prospect. On other occasions, the sportscaster's unconventional style was a welcome change. Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith went to Cosell after giving the "Black Power" salute on the medal stand in 1968, knowing that he would have a chance to comment on his highly controversial action. "He asked questions that gave a young athlete like myself enough space to say what I felt," Smith explained years later in Multichannel News.
Cosell's most famous interviews were with Muhammad Ali. The verbally precocious pair developed a friendship that was strengthened by controversy. Cosell was the first sportscaster to call the heavyweight champion, originally known as Cassius Clay, by his new Muslim name. This act alone was scandalous to many Americans. In 1967 when Ali refused for religious reasons to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, Cosell was irate about the New York State Boxing Commission taking away his championship. "What the government did to this man was inhuman and illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments," he was quoted in a Washington Post obituary; "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." Some would discount the relationship between the two men by saying that Cosell knowingly rode to fame on Ali's coattails. Looking back decades later, essayist Stanley Crouch listed it among Ali's major accomplishments, asserting in Time Atlantic that "in his relationship with the Jewish sportscaster Howard Cosell, Ali realized the ongoing dream of our society—and perhaps the world—that people of different colors and religious backgrounds can disagree, taunt each other, support each other and at almost every point so purely recognize the humanity of each other that a transcendent friendship can emerge."
It was important for Cosell to show the same issues that trouble the world at large were also to be found inside sports. "I have sought to bring to the American people a sense of the athlete as a human being and not as a piece of cereal-box mythology," he told Playboy. He wanted dispel the idea that "sport is somehow different, that it's a privileged sanctuary from real life, a looking-glass world unto itself." Racism and drug use were two of the "real world" issues Cosell explored. The ABC radio sports director Shelby Whitfield commented in a People magazine retrospective, "When Howard came on the scene … no one criticized referees or coaches or players or anybody. But he was a lawyer, and that went to the core of everything." Other legal issues that Cosell weighed in on were Curt Flood's challenge of baseball's reserve clause and the 1986 USFL lawsuit against the NFL.
Monday Night Football
When Roone Arledge made the daring move to broadcast NFL games in the evening, he chose Cosell as part of a three-man team of announcers. His presence drew a flood of hate mail from racist fans who despised his support of black athletes, but also increased the network's audience by 50 percent. The original Monday Night Football broadcasts featured play-by-play announcer Frank Gifford and color analyst Don Meredith, both former athletes, and Cosell. According to Bruce Newman in Sports Illustrated, Cosell's role was "blowhard" and that "for 14 seasons Cosell amused, amazed, outraged, annoyed and attracted audiences, building the Monday-night broadcast into something that was often bigger than the game itself." Dave Kindred explained in Sporting News how Cosell had transformed the broadcast: "Then on MNF came Cosell. With that Brooklyn nasal voice. That melodramatic delivery. All those opinions, many harsh, all made at great volume in tones brooking no argument. Cosell commanded attention." Thus a new phenomenon was born. Monday Night Football would go on to become the most successful show in prime-time history. It was also important in increasing the NFL's marketing edge over other sports, including major league baseball.
|1918||Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina|
|1918||Moves to Brooklyn, New York|
|1940||Graduates with honors from New York University law school|
|1944||Marries Mary Edith Abrams|
|1946||Begins practicing law in New York City|
|1953||Agrees to serve as unpaid radio host for ABC|
|1956||Signs six-week contract with ABC|
|1961||Becomes nightly sports reporter on WABC-TV in New York|
|1967||Defends Muhammad Ali's constitutional right to refuse military draft|
|1971||Shares Monday Night Football booth with Don Meredith and Frank Gifford|
|1975||Hosts short-lived Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell|
|1982||Quits work as boxing announcer after brutal heavy-weight title fight|
|1984||Quits Monday Night Football, now bored by the sport|
|1985||Produces Sportsbeat television newsmagazine|
|1985||Releases autobiography I Never Played the Game|
|1985||ABC responds to criticisms in autobiography by canceling Sportsbeat|
|1990||Emmy Cosell dies|
|1992||Retires from broadcasting|
|1995||Dies of heart embolism in New York City|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1974||Emmy Award nomination from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences|
In a few years Cosell was probably the most recognizable man in America, according to Cosell's former producer Peter Bonventre. "You couldn't walk down the street anywhere with him and not have everybody know him—kids of 5 or 6 and little old ladies. They would scream, 'Howie, tell it like it is,'" Bonventre recalled in People. Cosell was all over the television and not just on sports programs. He acted as guest host on several popular programs, including The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show. Among other appearances, Cosell was seen on the television series The Odd Couple, The Flip Wilson Show, and Laugh-In, and in the motion pictures Sleeper (1973) and The World's Greatest Athlete (1973). ABC even tried Cosell as the host of his own variety series in 1975; however, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell only lasted for half a season. In the late 1970s, a TV Guide poll rated Cosell as both the favorite and most-disliked sportscaster of the day.
Bars began holding contests during Monday Night Football in which the winner had the honor of throwing a brick through a television with Cosell's face on it. Following a 1970 World Series broadcast, the broadcaster's limousine was rocked by angry Baltimore fans until he was rescued by the police.
Criticism hurt Cosell deeply, but his responses did little to win him sympathy. When others derided him, he defended himself loudly, which drew still more criticism from within the industry. "There's one thing about this business: There is no place in it for talent. That's why I don't belong. I lack sufficient mediocrity," he once said in Sports Illustrated. His long-winded, accusatory, egotistical style appalled many sports reporters. He earned the nick names "The Mouth that Bored," "The Hanging Judge," and "The Martha Mitchell of Sportscasting." Sports columnist Jimmy Cannon was outraged that Cosell sold himself as a truth-teller and writer David Halberstam called him a bully. Such criticisms increased as the years passed and Cosell's ego grew, but as early as 1967 members of the press were pointing out his tendency to grandstand. "He asks better questions than the other radio and TV interviewers," New York Daily News columnist Dick Young was quoted in Sports Illustrated; "but he hokes up his questions so that they sound better than they are. 'Now truthfully'—it's always 'truthfully,' as if it's a question the guy on the other end has been ducking." Similarly, New York Post writer Larry Merchant observed that Cosell made "the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials." Responding to such criticisms, Cosell would boastfully agree in Cosell: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."
During the 1980s, Cosell's strong opinions eroded his presence on television. In 1982 he decided on the air that he would no longer announce boxing matches, while he watched Larry Holmes pulverize Randall "Tex" Cobb in a heavyweight title fight. Suddenly appalled by professional boxing's viciousness, he would later call for an end to the sport altogether. In 1984, he made an equally dramatic departure from Monday Night Football, calling it a "stagnant bore." This decision followed complaints about Cosell saying "look at that little monkey run" to describe black receiver Alvin Garrett in a Washington Redskins game. The remark was condemned as racist, despite Cosell's long record of supporting black athletes and the fact that he had previously used the same words regarding white players. Cosell created the sports newsmagazine Sportsbeat in 1985, which opened to strong reviews. The show was cancelled after just three months when Cosell released his autobiography, I Never Played the Game, a volume filled with negative appraisals of his ABC colleagues. He would never work in television again.
The rupture with ABC television left Cosell doing interviews and commentary on the radio. He was exceedingly bitter and, already reputed to be a heavy drinker, was said to be turning more frequently to alcohol. Sports writer Frank Deford suggested in People that Cosell did not sour until, after fifty-four years of marriage, his wife Emmy died in 1990. Emmy has been described as the one person to whom Howard would listen and, at home with their daughters Jill and Hilary, he was said to have been a different man, quiet and kind. In his book Cosell, he once wrote, "Emmy's my life.… I go nowhere without her. I wouldn't do 'Monday Night Football,' I wouldn't travel, I wouldn't cross the Triboro Bridge without Emmy." Both, his own health and his career faltered in her absence. A year after Emmy's death, Cosell had a cancerous tumor surgically removed from his chest and in 1992 he retired from broadcasting. His few remaining years were spent in near isolation.
Howard Cosell was seventy-seven when he died of a heart embolism at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan on April 23, 1995. His death was met with an odd mix of responses, comprising both testimonies to his tremendous impact and a decided lack of emotion. William Nack noted in Sports Illustrated, "None inspired a sense of ambivalence that ran quite as deep and powerful as did Howard Cosell, in life and in death, and this was nowhere more evident than in the eulogies served up on Sunday with a side of ice." He described Roone Arledge as being without emotion when he said, "Howard Cosell was one of the most original people to appear on American television.… He became a giant by telling the truth in an industry that was not used to hearing it and considered it revolutionary." An obituary writer for The Economist looked for Cosell's place in history and noted that "Mr Cosell's decline owed something to an early skirmish in the political-correctness wars," referring to his comment about Alvin Garrett. The writer concluded, "Probably, there will never be another sportscaster like him: not because he symbolized a bygone era, but because he was himself such an extraordinary human being. He was a genius, a braggart, a cynic and a boor. And if few tears were shed at his death, he will be missed just the same." A rare, warm comment came from filmmaker Woody Allen, who featured Cosell in several of his productions. He said in Entertainment Weekly, "He was in a class by himself as a sportscaster … with an urgent voice, wit, and first-rate intelligence. And most importantly, he was his own man."
During the decade after Cosell's death several film projects reflected the high drama of Cosell's life. The HBO documentary Howard Cosell: Telling it Like It Is was both a tribute and an exploration of his great contradictions. The film detailed the kinds of discrimination that Cosell faced as a Jew during his childhood and television career. Interviews include Cosell's children, Muhammad Ali, comedian Billy Crystal, and colleagues from ABC televsion. Notably, sportscasters Frank Gifford and Al Michaels still had positive comments to make about Cosell despite his harsh treatment of them in his autobiography. As portrayed by actor Jon Voight, he was an important figure in the motion picture Ali (2001). Soon thereafter, TNT's cable-television movie Monday Night Mayhem (2002) was dominated by Cosell's presence as recreated by John Turturro. According to Dave Kindred in the Sporting News, the film proved that Cosell was "still news" seven years after his death. While the film is ostensibly about the larger issue of creating Monday Night Football, Kindred suggested that the film "succeeds because it gives us a Howard Cosell so complex as to be respected and despised, deplored and admired. Just as in life."
Time will tell how long Howard Cosell's notoriety will survive beyond living memory. He has been much imitated for comic effect but rarely emulated. When Bruce Newman reviewed Cosell's career in Sports Illustrated shortly before his death, he noted, "when Cosell decided to leave the broadcast booth after 38 years, he was still the only one doing whatever it was he did." Sportscaster Keith Olbermann would later echo this sentiment when he said in the Sporting News, "There have been doors opened, but we have not followed in Howard's lead.… We have not been the provocateurs … not been the journalists that Howard demanded we should be."
Cosell's quotes and videotaped television appearances still shock, still interest, and still entertain. If he remains unchallenged as the most daring and outrageous of sportscasters, he has nevertheless set the standard for that title.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY COSELL:
Great Moments in Sport: A Sport Magazine Anthology, Macfadden-Bartell, 1964.
Cosell, Pocket Books, 1973.
I Never Played the Game, Morrow, 1985.
Monday Night Mayhem
Howard Cosell is the element that makes TNT's Monday Night Mayhem sizzle. The 2002 made-for-cable movie offers John Turturro's outstanding performance as the sportscaster, one that replicates his voice, his verbage, and his volume without dipping too far into caricature. Co-stars in the film include Patti LuPone as Emmy Cosell, John Heard as Roone Arledge, Kevin Anderson as Frank Gifford, Brad Beyer as Don Meredith, and Nicolas Turturro (John's brother) as Chet Forte. The movie is based on a 1988 book by Bill Carter and Marc Gunther and recreates the on-air and off-air drama of creating Monday Night Football. It shows how revolutionary Arledge's ideas were, not only broadcasting football at night, but putting roving cameras on the sidelines, letting the audience hear the sounds from the field, and creating a colorful team of announcers in the booth. While Cosell is mixing it up with his co-hosts, ABC was receiving a flood of anti-Semitic mail from viewers and early sponsors tried to back out of their commitments.
What's Wrong With Sports, 1991.
Cosell, Howard. Cosell. New York: Pocket Books, 1974.
Newsmakers 1995, Issue 4. Detroit: Gale, 1995.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Cope, Myron. "Would You Let This Man Interview You?" Sports Illustrated (March, 21, 1994): 94.
Crouch, Stanley. "An American Original." Time Atlantic (January 28, 2002): 50.
Demenchuk, Michael. "HBO Documentary Tells It Like It Is." Multichannel News (October 25, 1999): 24.
Kindred, Dave. "Telling It Like It Was." Sporting News (January 21, 2002): 64.
Nack, William. "Telling It Like It Is." Sports Illustrated (May 1, 1995): 120.
Newman, Bruce. "Howard Cosell." Sports Illustrated (September 19, 1994): 104.
Playboy (May, 1972).
Plummer, William and Mary Huzinec. "The Mouth That Roared." People (May 8, 1995): 244.
Washington Post (April 24, 1995): A1, C1, C10.
Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott
Despite obvious drawbacks—a nasal Brooklyn accent, an obvious toupé, and a propensity for prolix pronouncements—American sportscaster Howard Cosell (1920–1995) changed the face—and voice—of sports broadcasting forever, replacing bland, sycophantic, sanitized commentary with hard-nosed observations and often-unpopular stands on principle. "History will reflect that Howard Cosell was easily the dominant sportscaster of all time," wrote colleague Al Michaels in the foreword to Cosell's book What's Wrong with Sports, "and certainly the most famous." Cosell was "a broadcasting pioneer who changed the way people listen to and watch sports," recalled ABC radio sports director Shelby Whitfield in People magazine. In his book I Never Played the Game, Cosell summed himself up in his typically self-aggrandizing style: "I'm one helluva communicator."
Born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1920, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Cosell was the son of Isidore and Nellie Cohen. "For the record," Cosell noted in Cosell, "Cosell—once spelled with a K—is the family name.… As a Polish refugee, my grandfather had been unable to make his name clear to a harried immigration inspector. The official simply compromised on Cohen and waved him through."
Isidore Cohen, an accountant for a clothing company, moved his family to Brooklyn shortly before Howard turned three. He aspired to a middle-class existence, but, like millions of others, struggled—often unsuccessfully—to provide for his family when the Depression hit and jobs dried up. "I remember the electricity being turned off in our house for nonpayment of rent and my dad fighting with the janitor to try and get it turned back on," Cosell recalled. Always on the ragged outer edges of prosperity, Cohen wanted the security of a profession for his son.
Entered Law Profession to Honor Family Request
Howard's intelligence was apparent early on, his mother claiming that he started talking at age nine months. An excellent student, he attended Brooklyn public schools, including P.S. 9 and Alexander Hamilton High School, where he wrote a sports column for the school newspaper called "Speaking of Sports"—he later gave the same title to his radio program. He went on to New York University, where he earned a degree in English literature and a membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Bowing to his parents wishes, he then earned a law degree at the same university, editing NYU's law review and passing the bar exam at age twenty-one. "I'd never really wanted to become a lawyer," he told Playboy interviewer Lawrence Linderman. "I guess the only reason I went through with it was because my father worked so hard to have a son who'd be a professional."
Before he could settle into a practice, however, World War II intervened and Cosell enlisted in the U.S. Army. Following a pattern he would often repeat, he began as a private and left four and a half years later as a major. After his discharge, Cosell tried to forgo the legal future his parents had ordained for him by auditioning as a radio announcer at WOR. The station flatly rejected him, saying his nasal Brooklyn-inflected voice made him completely unsuitable for radio.
Cosell returned to the law in 1946, opening an office in Manhattan. His practice included many sports and entertainment figures, among them Willie Mays, and it came about that he was asked to oversee the incorporation of Little League Baseball in New York. This brought Cosell to the attention of ABC Radio, which asked him to host a fifteen-minute Saturday-morning show in which Little Leaguers interviewed sports pros. Cosell took the ball and ran with it, getting far more than the network had expected—in one episode New York Yankee baseball player Hank Bauer aired his beefs with team manager Casey Stengel. Nearly 20 years later Cosell was still chuckling about it, telling Linderman: "We made news with that show!"
ABC then signed Cosell to do ten five-minute weekend sports broadcasts, paying him the below-scale sum of $250 a week for the privilege. Lugging a 30-pound tape recorder on his back, Cosell took every interview he could get. As he recalled in Cosell, "There was nothing being done in depth, a total absence of commentary and little in the way of actuality." He wanted to change the status quo: "I was infected with my desire, my resolve, to make it in broadcasting. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and how." Determined to succeed, Cosell quit his $30,000-a-year law practice.
Out on a Limb for Broadcast Excellence
In 1961 Cosell began his daily Speaking of Sports broadcasts for ABC News, a radio staple that ran until 1992. Each show began with Cosell's familiar staccato delivery, which Dave Kindred of the Sporting News described as "to voices what the Grand Canyon is to ditches.… 'HELLO AGAIN, EVERYBODY, THIS IS HOWARD COSELL SPEAKING OF SPORTS.'" Cosell's penchant for polysyllabism prompted Kindred to quote sportswriter Jim Murray, who said Cosell "has the vocabulary of an Oxford don and the delivery of a Dead End kid." Cosell always closed with another of his famous tag lines: "This is Howard Cosell telling it like it is."
Cosell was determined to get into television as well as radio. His less-than-glamorous looks and grating voice, however, made ABC executives equally determined to keep him off the air. Undeterred, he formed a production company and filmed a well-received documentary titled Babe Ruth: A Look behind the Legend. His followup effort was Run to Daylight, a look at Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers that Linderman called "still the most highly acclaimed TV sports documentary ever made." Unable to ignore Cosell's talent, ABC began to include him on their popular Wide World of Sports broadcasts.
In 1962 Cosell met the great boxer Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, and began to cover Ali's fights. Thus began a series of interviews and dialogs that brought both fighter and sportscaster into the national limelight for the first time. Dick Heller noted in the Washington Times that Cosell "discovered Muhammad Ali and vice versa—a marriage surely made in athletic heaven." The two developed an enduring friendship, despite the mock arguments that permeated their on-air banter. Their relationship was firmly cemented when Cosell openly supported Ali's name change and entry into the Nation of Islam. Cosell was "angry and finally furious" at those who opposed Ali's decision: "they wanted … another Joe Louis," he wrote in Cosell. "A white man's black man.… Didn't these idiots realize that Cassius Clay was the name of a slave owner? … Had I been black and my name Cassius Clay, I damned well would have changed it!"
Cosell also voiced his disapproval in 1967 when Ali was stripped of his title and convicted of evading the draft after declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. (Ali's conviction was later overturned on procedural grounds by the U.S. Supreme Court.) As Tom Callahan noted in Time magazine, "Cosell knew that Muslim Ali stood on firm legal ground in conscientiously objecting to the draft. But he also felt Ali was right." Cosell was equally vociferous in his support for John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they silently supported the Black Power movement with upraised fists on the medals dais at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Joined Monday Night Football Lineup
Monday Night Football was the brainchild of National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle and Roone Arledge, Cosell's mentor at ABC. Its debut, on September 21, 1970, featured veteran commentator Keith Jackson, former Dallas Cowboy "Dandy" Don Meredith, and Cosell. Unfortunately, Cosell's open support for Ali unleashed a firestorm of criticism directed at both ABC and Cosell himself. Others were skeptical that anyone who had never played the game could cover it adequately. And there were plenty who raged at his trademark delivery—"the tone of someone describing battles in World War II," claimed Ralph Novak in People—and his pompous verbosity and biting commentary.
Stung but undaunted, Cosell continued to persevere, and by the time Monday Night Football covered the Packers at San Diego, Cosell's popularity began to rebound. His knowledge of the Packers, accumulated during the Lombardi documentary, was impressive, and viewers voted with their television sets: the program began to earn sky-high ratings, much of it due to Cosell. As Cosell quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica 1973 yearbook in his book Cosell: "sportscaster Howard Cosell made pro football addicts of more than 25 million viewers on Monday nights"—despite having "a voice that had all the resonance of a clogged Dristan bottle."
During the 1970s Cosell became a national icon, one survey showing that 96 percent of those questioned recognized his name. Some people loved him, others just loved to hate him. A TV Guide poll of viewers in 1978 named him both the most- and least-liked sportscaster on the air. His trademark style was instantly recognizable and often parodied. He played himself in numerous film and television appearances, including a role in Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas and a turn as host on Saturday Night Live.
Cosell's hard-edged criticism of certain athletes was well known, but his views on the corporate organizations running professional sports were equally harsh. In I Never Played the Game he accuses baseball's "carpetbagging owners" of taking established teams like the Dodgers and Braves to new cities and lashes out at the sport's iron grip on its players. Cosell also publically applauded Curt Flood's attempt to strike down baseball's reserve clause as a violation of antitrust laws and even testified before Congress in favor of free agency. (The reserve clause was effectively abolished in 1975.) Despite these stands against team owners, so powerful was Cosell's draw that ABC assigned him to Monday Night Baseball as a sportscaster.
Sports Arena Reflected Increased Social, Political Conflicts
Sports and history had a gruesome collision in the summer of 1972 when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Munich Olympics and murdered eleven Israeli athletes. The tragedy had a searing impact on Cosell. As he recalled in Cosell, it was "the most trying and dramatic … [time] of my life.… I had never felt so intensely Jewish." Although his grandfather had been a rabbi, the family was not religious; Cosell had not even been bar mitzvahed. The Munich massacre, however, led him to a deeper recognition and appreciation of his Jewish heritage, one outgrowth of which was the Cosell Center for Physical Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In September 1983 Cosell started another firestorm after innocently commenting on a play by Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett. As he recalled in I Never Played the Game, he remarked, "That little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?" after a particularly good run by Garrett, who is black. Despite Cosell's sterling record on racial and civil-rights issues, and his insistence that the remark was not only laudatory but one he used affectionately with his own grandchildren, many were quick to denounce him. Cosell refused to apologize and defended himself against the charge of racism. Despite support from celebrities like Bill Cosby and Willie Mays, furor continued to rage around him. The incident eventually faded, but Cosell was disgusted. He left Monday Night Football two months later, at the end of the season. Nor was he surprised when the show's ratings fell during the 1984 season: "Without me," he claimed in I Never Played the Game, "the nature of the telecasts was entirely altered. I had commanded attention. I had a palpable impact on the show, giving it a sense of moment.… If that sounds like ego, what can I say? I'm telling it like it is."
A year earlier Cosell had turned his back on professional boxing as well. "For almost a quarter of a century, I was ABC's boxing specialist," Cosell explained, going on to add that: "Boxing gave me my first glimpse of media stardom, and I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that I was gripped by a spellbinding attraction to the sport." He had known for years that "corruption was all around" boxing and its promoters, and he had tried hard to "expose the dirty underbelly of the sport." The Holmes-Cobb fight on November 26, 1982—a lopsided match-up designed to ensure a Holmes victory—was Cosell's breaking point. The fight, he wrote, was "an unholy mess" and "a bloodbath." Holmes landed twenty-six unanswered blows and inflicted merciless punishment on Cobb, yet the fight was not stopped. Cosell declared then and there that he would never cover another professional boxing match.
During his long career, Cosell wrote four books: Cosell, 1973; Like It Is, 1974; I Never Played the Game, 1985; and What's Wrong with Sports, 1991. Like his sports broadcasts, each is filled with unvarnished appraisals of players, teams, and other broadcasters. His third book, in particular, written after he left ABC, contains harsh, even savage, assessments of colleagues such as Roone Arledge, his mentor at ABC, and Monday Night Football alums Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. Ralph Novak, in a review of the book for People, called I Never Played the Game "full of paranoia, condescension and hypocrisy."
When Cosell's beloved wife Emmy died in 1990 after 46 years of marriage, much of the fire seemed to go out of him. He had a cancerous tumor removed from his chest the following year but continued to do his daily radio broadcasts until 1992. Inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1993, Cosell died of a heart embolism on April 23, 1995, at New York University's Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City; he was awarded a posthumous Emmy for lifetime achievement the following year.
So powerful was Cosell's legend, however, that the media would not let him go. In 1999 HBO broadcast the cable television documentary Howard Cosell: Telling It like It Is, borrowing Cosell's ubiquitous tag line for its title. TNT aired the movie Monday Night Mayhem in 2002, with John Turturro portraying Cosell. Edward Achorn, writing in the Providence Journal, noted that the film "treats Cosell almost reverently, depicting him, for all his many quirks and faults, as a loyal and loving husband and family man, a quietly generous fellow, a crusader against racial prejudice, a dazzlingly talented professional who happened to be tormented by his insecurities. How many of today's glib sportscasters will stir this kind of attention 20 years from now? It's not going out on a limb to venture the answer: none."
Cosell, Howard, and Mickey Herskowitz, Cosell, Playboy Press, 1973.
Cosell, Howard, and Peter Bonventre, I Never Played the Game, G. K. Hall, 1986.
Cosell, Howard, and Shelby Whitfield, What's Wrong with Sports, Simon & Schuster, 1991.
People, December 9, 1985; May 8, 1995.
Playboy, May 1972.
Providence Journal (Providence, RI), January 15, 2002.
Sporting News, March 27, 1995.
Time, January 6, 1986.
Washington Times, October 31, 1999.
"Put Howard Cosell in the Hall of Fame," Seconds Out,http://www.secondsout.com/usa/column_47595.asp (January 9, 2004).
Cosell was born Howard William Cohen, one of two children of Isadore Cohen, an accountant, and Nellie Cohen. Before Howard’s third birthday Isadore Cohen moved his family to Brooklyn, New York, where Howard attended public schools. Reared in an immigrant Jewish family, Howard strove to succeed. He played varsity basketball and ran track at Alexander Hamilton High School, where he also edited the sports section of the school newspaper. After graduating in 1938, Cosell wanted to become a journalist, but his parents convinced him to study law. By age twenty-one he had earned a B.A. in English literature and an LL.B., both from New York University. As an undergraduate he changed his last name to Cosell, which was closer to the family’s original name in Polish.
Cosell eventually returned to his first love, journalism. During World War II he graduated from Officer Candidate School and served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps at the New York Port of Embarkation. He became an important transport planner and attained the rank of major. In 1944 he married Mary Edith “Emmy” Abrams, the daughter of an industrialist. They had two daughters. Following World War II, Cosell opened a law practice in New York, where his clients included the baseball player Willie Mays and the Little League of New York. In 1953 he signed with the ABC radio network to host a public affairs program on which little leaguers questioned major league baseball stars. Beginning in 1956 he reported on sports for ABC radio and during the succeeding two years hosted Sports Focus, a television show that allowed Cosell to explore the relationships among athletics and wider social concerns.
Cosell’s reputation as a maverick journalist began with his reporting on boxing. Starting in 1959 he called the action and provided commentary for world championship bouts over ABC radio and television. When the heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, a Black Muslim, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Cosell respected the decision and never used Ali’s “slave” name. The two men forged a close association that abetted their careers. When in 1967 the New York State Boxing Commission stripped Ali of his title for refusing military service on grounds of conscientious objection, Cosell lambasted the move as “imbecilic” and “illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.” His stand generated hate mail and some death threats. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Cosell offended white racists when he sympathetically interviewed Tommie Smith, the gold medal—winning sprinter who raised his clenched fist in a Black Power salute at the victory ceremony. Cosell defended another African American athlete, Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, when Flood successfully challenged major league baseball’s reserve clause, commencing the era of free agency.
In the 1960s Cosell’s activities expanded. Between 1961 and 1971 he reported nightly on sports for WABC-TV, ABC’s outlet in New York City. During 1962 and 1963 Cosell covered New York Mets baseball games for ABC radio until the Mets management dismissed him, partly because he declined to cheer for the hometown team. Cosell formed his own company, Legend Productions, which released a series of documentaries (1963). A Look behind the hegend, narrated by Cosell, examined the life of Babe Ruth and drew praise, as did Run to Daylight, the story of the Green Bay Packers football team and their coach Vince Lombardi, whom Cosell admired. A proponent of racial equality, Cosell especially liked One Hundred Yards to Glory, which profiled Grambling College, a small, historically black school in Louisiana with a potent football team coached by Eddie Robinson.
Cosell’s career skyrocketed in 1970, when ABC inaugurated Monday Night Football. In weekly, prime-time telecasts of National Football League (NFL) games, Keith Jackson and later Frank Gifford provided play-by-play coverage, Don Meredith analyzed videotaped replays, and Cosell offered commentary. In tapping Cosell, Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, went against the wishes of the NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who opposed the inclusion of such an iconoclastic reporter. Nevertheless, during its first season Monday Night Football captured a 32 percent share of the television audience, and Arledge credited Cosell’s “spice” with enlivening each telecast, “particularly when a game wasn’t very good.” Monday Night Football remained one of the decade’s most popular television programs.
During the 1970s Cosell emerged as America’s most entertaining and most infuriating sportscaster. His high-pitched Brooklyn twang, staccato delivery, and supercilious vocabulary (”I have lived on the precipice of professional peril every day of my career”) inspired both impersonation and derision. Cosell parodied himself during an appearance in Woody Allen’s film Bananas (1971) and in guest shots on such television comedies as The Odd Couple, Nanny and the Professor, The Partridge Family, and Saturday Night Live. “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off,” he wrote, “I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.” He labeled the autocratic Avery Brundage, chair of the International Olympic Committee, “William of Orange.” According to Cosell, most baseball players seemed “afflicted with tobacco-chewing minds.” He chided “carpet-bagging” owners who removed sports franchises from cities with loyal fans and denounced “jockocracy,” the promotion of former athletes with little journalistic training to broadcast booths. As early as 1971 Cosell attacked major league baseball owners for failing to hire even one African American manager.
Nevertheless, Cosell tired of sports. After witnessing a brutal bout in 1982, he announced that he would no longer comment on professional boxing for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In 1983 Cosell’s liberal credentials came under fire when, during a Monday Night Football telecast, he referred to Alvin Garrett, a wide receiver for the Washington Redskins, as “that little monkey.” Cosell explained that the allusion was to Garrett’s diminutive size, not his race, and he never apologized. Dubbing professional football “a stagnant bore,” he left Monday Night Football following the 1983 season. He had grown weary of press criticism and the gaffes of his coworkers Gifford and Meredith, two former NFL stars whom he disparaged in his book I Never Played the Game (1985). In 1984 ABC canceled Cosell’s talk show SportsBeat, which had drawn poor ratings. Cosell’s wife died in 1990. He continued his weekly radio program Speaking of Sports until he retired in 1992. Cosell died of a heart embolism in Manhattan three years later.
Cosell lived in Pound Ridge, New York, and in New York City. Known as a prankster, he was given to joshing and flirting in his inimitably grandiloquent style. His hobby was his career; to him, professional sport was “the toy department of life.” Cosell was the first sportscaster to achieve celebrity status. Unlike many earlier journalists, he refused to treat either games or athletes as sacrosanct, and he reminded Americans that sports reflected the values of their society. Yet Cosell’s ego overshadowed his ideas. He once asserted that talent had no place in sportscasting, adding: “That’s why I don’t belong. I lack mediocrity.”
Cosell’s books include Cosell (1973), Like It Is (1974), and I Never Played the Game (1985). An insightful profile is Robert Lipsyte, “He Was One of a Kind in a Booth of His Own,” New York Times (24 Apr. 1995). For Cosell’s role at ABC, see Bert Randolph Sugar, “The Thrill of Victory”: The Inside Story of ABC (1978). His relationship with Muhammad Ali receives attention in Jeffrey T. Scammon, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Apr. 1995).
Dean J. Kotlowski
(b. 25 March 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; d. 23 April 1995 in New York City), brash, egotistical sports journalist who inspired admiration and loathing from colleagues and sports fans alike in his zeal for "telling it like it is."
Cosell was born Howard William Cohen, the younger child of Isadore Martin Cohen, an accountant for a chain of clothing stores, and Nellie Rosenthal Cohen, a homemaker. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York, before he was three. He indulged his passion for athletics by serving as the sports editor of the newspaper at Alexander Hamilton High School. He enrolled in New York University in 1935 and studied liberal arts before switching at his parents' request to the law school. He obtained a law degree there in 1940.
Cohen enlisted in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in 1942 and was stationed at the New York Port of Embarkation, where he rose to the rank of major and supervised all personnel. There he met Corporal Mary Edith "Emmy" Abrams, a pretty blonde whom it was against army regulations to date. Undaunted, he obtained written permission from a general for his courtship. The two married in 1944 and had two children. They remained devoted partners until Emmy Cosell's death in 1990.
At some point in his young adulthood Cohen legally changed his surname to Cosell. To those who viewed the change as a denial of his Jewish heritage, he replied that his family's name in Poland ("Kasell") was actually closer to "Cosell" than "Cohen" and had been mangled by the U.S. immigration authorities.
After the end of World War II, Cosell established his own law practice, continuing his lifelong interest in sports by numbering athletes among his clients. In 1951 he helped to incorporate Little League baseball in the New York area, and in 1953 the restless lawyer found the opportunity he had been seeking, as the host of the ABC radio program All-League Clubhouse, in which Little Leaguers asked questions of major-league players. In 1956 ABC offered him a contract as a radio sports reporter, and he abandoned his law practice.
Cosell embraced radio eagerly, lugging around the heavy tape recorders of the period. He developed contacts in the sports world and earned a reputation for hard-hitting interviews. He slowly moved into television, becoming the nightly sports reporter for WABC-TV in New York in 1961 while continuing his radio work.
From 1959 on, Cosell covered boxing for ABC and finally achieved nationwide familiarity through his championing of the boxer Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. When the boxer abandoned the name Cassius Clay and converted to Islam, Cosell was the first broadcaster to use the new name. He also supported Ali in his battle to retain his heavyweight title and right to box in the United States, when officials penalized the boxer because he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Cosell loudly proclaimed Ali's persecutors racist and their arguments unconstitutional.
Cosell came into his full glory when Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, decided to court viewers in 1970 by expanding football telecasting beyond the weekend. Monday Night Football, a program in which Cosell was a fixture through 1983, gave him a forum for his athlete interviews, his three-dollar vocabulary, and his frankness.
He viewed himself as a maverick and a pioneer, a "hard" journalist in a field that had hitherto consisted of jocks and cheerleaders. Cosell took his mission to serve the U.S. public so seriously that in the mid-1970s he even considered running for the U.S. Senate. "That wasn't chutzpah," remarked the Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich of the sportscaster's political aspirations. "That was Cosell."
Cosell became a huge celebrity during his stint at Monday Night Football. He worked on a variety of sports broadcasts, including those of several Olympic Games and the famed 1973 tennis "Battle of the Sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. He also appeared on television programs such as The Odd Couple, The Dean Martin Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. His Brooklyn accent and middle-aged, toupee-enhanced appearance evoked instant familiarity.
He guest-hosted talk shows and even briefly hosted a variety show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell (1975). Such was his cultural currency that the filmmaker Woody Allen employed him, most notably in Bananas (1971), in which Cosell rushed to interview an assassinated Latin American dictator on his deathbed and performed a play-by-play analysis of the consummation of a marriage.
Despite his visibility, Cosell was not universally popular. "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these," he wrote in his book Cosell (1973). "Of course I am." Cosell expressed his opinions about sports and his life off the air in several other books: Like It Is (1974); I Never Played the Game, with Peter Bonventre (1985); and What's Wrong with Sports, with Shelby Whitfield (1991). Like his on-air commentary, his books made enemies. Of I Never Played the Game, Povich wrote, "Oh yes he did, and he played it spitefully and with self-promotion always in mind as he homed into the big story, this poseur of the public's right to know, who for years played his own game of How Great I Am and Don't You Forget It."
In 1982, after witnessing a particularly brutal fight, Co-sell announced that he would no longer cover boxing; after he retired from Monday Night Football the next year he extended his disdain to that sport as well. He continued to perform radio sports commentary until 1992, although after the cancellation of his ABC program SportsBeat in 1985 he no longer appeared regularly on television. In 1991 Cosell underwent an operation for cancer, and a series of strokes left him weak and increasingly reclusive. He died of a heart embolism in New York City on 23 April 1995.
Cosell exerted considerable influence on sports journalism. Although he was not always the champion of the people he thought he was, he took a stand against racism in sports and fought for coverage of such difficult issues as drugs in the athletic world. He helped to make Monday Night Football an institution that changed network sports programming. In the final analysis, however, it was his loud personality rather than his subject matter that struck his audiences—so much that a 1978 poll found him both the nation's most liked and most hated broadcaster. In 1984 the Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser summed up Cosell's legacy: "Yes, he was contentious. Yes, he was controversial. But damn it, he was compelling."
Aside from his own works, the best book about Cosell is by the television producer Terry O'Neil, The Game Behind the Game: High Pressure, High Stakes in Television Sports (1989). Cosell inspired a number of profiles, including three in TV Guide: Saul Braun, "The Voice You Love to Hate" (28 Aug. 1971); Melvin Durslag, "Howard Cosell vs. the World" (27 Sept. 1975); and David Shaw, "Before You Boo Howard Cosell" (9 Feb. 1980). Also helpful are Harry Waters, "This Is Howard Cosell," Newsweek (2 Oct. 1972); Tony Kornheiser, "Cosell's Legacy," Washington Post (23 Aug. 1984); and Shirley Povich, "Cosell: What's a Low Punch Among Friends?," Washington Post (11 Oct. 1985). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 24 Apr. 1995), and Povich's remembrance is in the Washington Post (2 May 1995).
Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat
COSELL, HOWARD (Howard William Cohen ; 1920–1995) U.S. sportscaster, commentator for abc's "Monday Night Football" from 1970 to 1983; one of the most outspoken, colorful, and controversial national sports reporters and personalities in American broadcasting history. Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His father had arrived in the United States from Lodz as a child and his mother was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of a rabbi. After serving as an army major in World War ii and a lawyer in New York City, Cosell joined abc as a radio sports reporter in 1956 and first gained national attention in 1959 with his commentaries on world heavyweight fights, and then for his work on abc's Wide World of Sports. But it was Cosell's relationship and interviews with the heavyweight champion Cassius Clay in the 1960s that thrust the sportscaster to the center of racial controversy in the United States. Cosell was the first person to use publicly the champion's black Muslim name Muhammad Ali, and in 1967 he vigorously defended him against charges of draft evasion. Cosell's meteoric rise as a sports journalist paralleled the equally meteoric career of Ali, as Cosell was the broadcast commentator for every one of Ali's fights in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the emotion-charged era of the Vietnam War and civil rights agitation, the relationship between the provocative black from Kentucky and the equally forthright Jewish lawyer from New York evoked a storm of protest and expressions of antisemitism, with many demanding that Cosell be fired. "I've been more vilified than [mass murderer] Charles Manson or Richard Nixon," he said.
In 1970, Cosell was hired to launch an innovative venture in television, the broadcasting of football in prime time, and the overwhelming success establishing "Monday Night Football" as an American tradition was attributed in large part to Cosell. Considered candid, opinionated, often insightful but also annoyingly verbose, his provocative style redefined sports play-by-play and "color" commentary. Cosell's shrill speaking style, incessant preaching, overbearing manner, and abrasive personality were irritants to many – "I tell it like it is" was his famous pronouncement – but they made him, according to one poll, both the most liked and most hated tv reporter in the country.
Cosell hosted his own show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, in the fall of 1975, but it was canceled after three months. He provided color commentary on abc's "Monday Night Baseball" beginning in 1976 and hosted numerous other sports commentary shows on both television and radio, including Speaking of Sports, Speaking of Everything, and Sportsbeat. Cosell grew disenchanted with boxing and quit the sport after a brutal, one-sided fight between Larry Holmes and Randall Cobb in 1982, and he left "Monday Night Football" before the start of the 1984 season, claiming that the nfl had "become a stagnant bore." Cosell retired from abc in 1985, and the following year he became a sports columnist for the New York Daily News.
Cosell was elected to the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1993 and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1993. In a July 2000 ranking of sportscasters of the 20th century by the American Sportscasters Association, Cosell finished second, followed by Mel *Allen.
The product of a non-religious family – his brother was bar mitzvahed though not Cosell, and his father would go to synagogue on holidays – Cosell never involved himself in the life of the Jewish community. That all changed after he covered the 1972 Olympics, with the kidnapping of Israeli athletes from Building 31 in the Olympic Village and their subsequent murder at the airport in Munich, West Germany. "I'll tell you when you know you're Jewish," he said in an interview, "you know you're Jewish when you're lying on the slope of a hill 30 feet from Building 31 and Dachau's  miles away.… When you undergo the experience that I underwent in Munich, you realize that no matter how you live, no matter what your feelings are about any formalized religion, in this world if you're born of Jewish parents you're Jewish. I married a gentile girl, my two daughters were not raised in the Jewish faith, but I'm Jewish." Cosell became a patron of the American Friends of the Hebrew University, which built the Howard Cosell Center for Physical Education in Jerusalem.
Cosell, who appeared as himself in Woody Allen's movies Bananas, Sleeper, and Broadway Danny Rose, is the author of Cosell (1973), Like It Is (1974), I Never Played the Game (1985), What's Wrong with Sports (1991), and Cosell on Sports: An Unexpurgated Look at American Sports in the Age of Big Money, Easy Drugs, and Fast Sex (1991). "In my field, not in conceit but in fact, I am historic," he said in 1981. "I changed the nature of my profession totally, completely. I brought it a whole new look. I brought it education, I brought it literacy, I brought it questing, I brought it journalism, and there's not going to be another like me – because of the corruption of my industry it won't be allowed. Circumstances were right for me and I was a freak. It's not going to happen again."
[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]
Howard Cosell (kōsĕl´), 1920–95, American sports broadcaster, b. Winston-Salem, N.C., as Howard William Cohen. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and became a lawyer; in 1956 he began covering sports for the American Broadcasting Company. A dominant U.S. sports broadcaster during the 1960s to 80s, he was identified especially with ABC's prime-time
"Monday Night Football"
(1970–84) and as a vocal advocate for Muhammad Ali. Cosell's outspoken, blunt, and often abrasive style, marked by his frequent claims to
"tell it like it is,"
made him one of television's most familiar figures.
See biography by M. Ribowsky (2011).