Sports Has Left a Bitter Taste in Cosell’s Mouth

Associated Press

To Howard Cosell, Howard Cosell is a prince of a guy.

Somewhat misunderstood by certain writers, perhaps, and pooh-poohed by some of his colleagues. And so what if the provocative sportscaster is as popular as poison to some? To others, he’s the next best thing to a “Thrilla in Manila.”

“I told it the way I thought it was and I still tell it the way I think it is,” the former Mouth of Monday night said while reflecting on his career and his best-selling book, “I Never Played the Game” (William Morrow, $18.95).

There’s a bundle of bitterness in the book, and sharp disillusionment with professional sports in the United States.


He starts out by comparing the “solemn” funeral in 1970 of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers football legend, to the 1979 funeral of Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom. At the latter, he said, “there were comedians and stale jokes. . . . Think about it. A funeral as halftime entertainment.”

In Cosell’s mind, Rosenbloom’s funeral serves as a metaphor for the decline of the National Football League.

Cosell says his disillusionment developed over 15 years. “During the decade before the ‘70s I had romantic ideals about sports like most people in this country who are taught from birth,” he said in an interview at his ABC office. “But times change. And in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I drastically changed my thinking.”

As he talked in his characteristic nasal, staccato style, Cosell’s droopy, basset hound eyes were hidden behind tinted aviator glasses. The cigar was missing, trembling hands held an endless glow of filtered cigarettes.

“I’m going on 68 and my values in life at this point in time. . . .” He trailed off. “Emmy (his wife) told me last night, ‘Hopefully we have five years left together.’ I have absolutely no interest in these silly games or anything else. I want us to enjoy these years. . . .

“I’ve given 33 years of my life to this public. . . . I’ve given this company all I have and they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars out of my efforts. Of course, it’s a two-way street.”


Cosell was on automatic; he spilled out more. “I have seen the educational process of this country defamed, disgraced, deteriorated. Why? Because we gotta win. I saw a man (New York Mets player Keith Hernandez) come back after confessing to snorting cocaine and they cheered him, and in the same city they booed the Canadian national anthem. Why? The same motivation. We need Hernandez; we gotta win.

“That arena is no longer for me.”

That arena made Cosell a household name. He redefined sportscasting for millions of Americans. He was humorous, he was caustic. He became a celebrity. Eventually, he overshadowed the events he was covering.

In his book, he burns a bridge or two, savaging colleagues and players.

He wrote that Frank Gifford, one of his former boothmates on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” made many mistakes on telecasts. He said Don Meredith, also part of the Monday night trio, was ill-prepared and indifferent. He called O.J. Simpson inarticulate.

Partly because of such published remarks, ABC pulled Cosell from covering this year’s World Series. In the interview, he fumed that sportscasters did not bother to place the event in some sort of historical perspective and remember America’s great pastime when black athletes were discriminated against.

“My closest friend, the most important influence in my life, was Jackie Robinson,” said Cosell. “This silly game comes and goes. St. Louis. Where Enos Slaughter said, ‘We’re going to strike that black son of a bitch . . . That should have been on the air . . . as a reminder. No. They’re busy analyzing how to bunt, how to hold a bat. I mean, please.”

Many observers peg the career rise of Howard Cosell to the coming of Muhammad Ali. Cosell was the first white sportscaster to support Ali’s challenge to the military draft on religious grounds and to call him Ali rather than Cassius Clay. As a result, Ali gave Cosell exclusive interviews, and two great careers emerged.


He became “Humble” Howard, Howard the Mouth. On camera, he was bombastic, egotistical, acerbic, shooting from the hip with million-dollar words. Off-camera he often flashed moments of insecurity.

It started in Brooklyn, where he was born Howard William Cohen, an accountant’s son. He watched Dodger games through the Ebbets Field fence and was an ace at the broad jump. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University and later was a top student at NYU Law School.

As his law practice languished, his interest in sports flourished. He helped form a local Little League, and ABC radio hired him to do a panel show of youngsters interviewing professional players.

With a flair for show business and a love of center stage, Cosell kept the show afloat and eventually did radio sports broadcasts. His law practice became memory.

Television was next. Then documentaries: profiles of such sports legends as Vince Lombardi and Mickey Mantle. Then Monday Night Football. And SportsBeat, the only regular forum on any network for sports interviews. It recently was canceled by ABC because of poor ratings.