Howard Cosell Dies; Altered Sports Journalism on TV : Broadcasting: The public loved and loathed his innovative, ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ style. He was 77.
Howard Cosell, one of the most controversial broadcasters in the history of sports television, died Sunday of a heart embolism at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York.
Cosell, 77, was for decades a flamboyant figure in the sports world, but he spent the last several years of his life a virtual recluse. After his wife died in 1990, Cosell retreated to his New York apartment, suffering from cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. He was too ill to attend the ceremony inducting him into the television Hall of Fame in 1994.
And his uncharacteristic low profile in his last years seemed to move him into obscurity. When ABC presented film clips during the 1995 Super Bowl to commemorate 25 years of “Monday Night Football,” not one made reference to Cosell, despite his legendary affiliation with the show.
Cosell’s Klaxon voice, unabashed arrogance and polysyllabic delivery made him the hallmark of ABC Sports for decades, the love-hate centerpiece of “Monday Night Football” for 14 years, and the leading television sportscaster of his time. He won many admirers and many critics, but none denied that he revolutionized the business of sports journalism.
“Howard Cosell was one of the most original people ever to appear on American TV,” ABC News President Roone Arledge told the Associated Press on Sunday. “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.”
Cosell was one of the first televised sports journalists to explore serious issues in athletics and to criticize coaches and athletes when their performances failed to live up to his high standards. He fiercely attacked racism wherever he found it, and sided with black athletes against management and public opinion in some of modern sport’s most controversial moments.
Boxer Muhammad Ali, who earned Cosell’s deep respect and unstinting praise, on Sunday said he would miss the sportscaster.
“Howard Cosell was a good man, and he lived a good life,” Ali said through a spokesman. “I have been interviewed by many people, but I have enjoyed the interviews by Howard Cosell the best. He always put on a good show. I hope to meet him one day in the hereafter. I can hear Howard Cosell now saying, ‘Muhammad, you are not the man you used to be.’ I pray that he is in God’s hands.”
Cosell’s critics found him grating and pompous, attacked his play-by-play announcing as ill-informed, and accused him of failing to understand the sports he covered. But his defenders credited Cosell with breaking the mold in a field long dominated by fawning ex-athletes.
“According to his enemies, who are legion, Cosell has made a career out of insufferability,” critic John Leonard once wrote. “According to his admirers, including me, he tells the truth.”
Washington Post television critic Tom Shales proclaimed Cosell “not only the champion,” but “the event.” NBC commentator Dick Enberg credited him with remaking sports journalism, sportswriter Frank Deford called him “sports in our time” and Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray dubbed him “the most famous broadcaster of his day.”
Cosell, never modest about his abilities, wholeheartedly agreed.
“My place in the history of the industry is obviously secured,” he said in 1985, a year after he left “Monday Night Football.” “Who have been the largest figures in American television? In news, Walter Cronkite. In entertainment, Johnny Carson. And in sports, Howard Cosell.”
That was typical Cosell: provocative, hyperbolic, self-congratulatory.
Not everyone shared Cosell’s vaunted view of himself. Washington Post writer Shirley Povich was one of Cosell’s sternest critics.
“ ‘Monday Night Football’ isn’t the same,” Povich wrote after Cosell departed that show. “It is more pleasant without Cosell’s fatuous utterances, his constant flogging of mistake-prone rookies and other luckless miscreants, and his woeful pretense of being a student of the game, which is still foreign to him after his 14 years on Monday nights.”
Povich added: “Personally, I rejoice in his absence from the booth. His presence there constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”
Yet even Povich acknowledged that Cosell brought something different to the broadcast booth: He was a tough interviewer.
“That’s the good part about Cosell,” Povich conceded. “But when the game proper starts, they ought to throw a bag over his head and lead him away.”
For Cosell, sports was never a calling. Born Howard William Cohen in Winston-Salem, N.C., Cosell grew up in Brooklyn wanting to be a newspaperman.
His parents thought otherwise, and urged him toward a career in law. He studied English literature at New York University, dabbled in acting and turned in a stellar academic performance. He graduated from New York University’s law school in 1940.
During World War II he rose to the rank of major in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, stationed in New York. He married Mary Edith Abrams during the war, and the couple remained fiercely devoted to each other until her death. Cosell often referred to his “Emmy” simply as “my life.”
Cosell practiced law for several years, but was wooed into the broadcast booth in 1953, when he suggested and hosted a program that gave New York area Little Leaguers the chance to meet baseball stars. Originally slated to run for six weeks, the program proved so popular that it stayed on the air for five years.
Cosell juggled that program with his legal work until 1956, when he contracted with ABC to broadcast 10 five-minute sports shows a week. He left his law practice for good. But he took his law school vocabulary with him--to the dismay of some listeners and the delight of others.
No mistake was just a gaffe--it was “utterly inexcusable.” No play was just clever--it was “unmistakably brilliant.” Boxing, once Cosell soured on it, was not just distasteful--it was “a quagmire, a desperately sick sport.”
Some critics--and untold numbers of other viewers--found Cosell’s style close to unbearable. He knew it. And reveled in it.
“Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a showoff--I’ve been called all of these,” Cosell once wrote. “Of course, I am.”
Yet he also won a stalwart collection of fans. Some critics praised his integrity and chutzpah. “Monday Night Football” took sports to prime time, and millions tuned in to hear Cosell, if only to complain about him later.
In a 1978 column--written as an open letter to Cosell--Shales said: “Howard, you represent heat in an age of cool, passion in a time of indifference and a thick, gooey slice of what-the-hell cheesecake in a time of tidy frozen yogurt. You will defend to the death the courage of your own preconceived notions. Your rough edges haven’t been polished into slick acrylic gloss. You are a living, breathing ham amid a chorus of mannerly, yellow blazer-wearers, a rumpled, crumpled cornball at a party for androids and curriers of public favor. You’re up and at ‘em.”
Cosell began covering heavyweight boxing bouts in 1959, and captured national attention with his unbounded praise of Muhammad Ali.
When Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, Cosell was one of the first to call him by his new name, drawing fire from some critics, sportswriters and boxing fans. Cosell dismissed them and their objections.
“Didn’t these idiots realize that Cassius Clay was the name of a slave owner?” he wrote. “What intelligent proud black in the 1960s would wish to bear the name of a white Kentucky senator who, before the Civil War, bought and sold black flesh? Had I been black and my name Cassius Clay, I damned well would have changed it!”
And when Ali was stripped of his title for refusing induction in the Army during the Vietnam War, Cosell furiously attacked the New York State Boxing Commission. ABC was swamped with mail, much of it vindictive, racist and anti-Semitic.
Cosell stood his ground, and continued to speak out against racism. He publicly sympathized with Tommie Smith, an American sprinter who stunned audiences by raising his gloved fist in a black-power salute as he was being awarded a gold medal during the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. And Cosell attacked Major League Baseball for hesitating to hire black managers.
Cosell’s defining moment as a sportscaster, however, may have been the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Early in those Games, Cosell drew a storm of criticism for a tough interview with an American coach who misread a schedule and caused two athletes to be disqualified and miss their chance for medals.
Then, days later, the games erupted as Arab terrorists captured Israel’s Olympic team, taking its members hostage. Cosell and a small group of colleagues provided eyewitness accounts of the excruciating standoff that eventually ended with both the terrorists and the athletes dead. For Cosell, grandson of a rabbi, it was a searing ordeal. He later described it as “one of the most trying and dramatic moments of my life.”
“I had never felt so intensely Jewish as when I watched this scene,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Two Israelis already dead; more to die here in Germany, where Hitler inflicted his scars; the Arabs, incredibly, this tiny coterie of desperadoes, holding forth.”
Cosell won plaudits for his courage and reporting during those tense days. But in later years, he was so relentless in his self-glorification--and so tough on others--that even many of his admirers were ambivalent toward him.
Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, two of Cosell’s “Monday Night Football” colleagues, were among those who felt his lash. Writing of Meredith, Cosell once said: “I was tempted to tell him on the air, ‘Look Don, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
And of Gifford, he wrote: “Like President Reagan, he is a Teflon man; no matter how many mistakes he makes during a telecast, no matter how glaring his weaknesses as a performer, nothing sticks to him. . . . He’s not a natural performer, never was, never will be.”
Cosell was a man of contradictions: He covered professional boxing for decades, then announced in 1982 that he was “fed up” with the brutality and financial chicanery of the sport. He spent 14 years providing commentary on “Monday Night Football,” despite his view that football “lacks sufficient complexity to mystify an 8-year-old.”
He praised himself as a “born reporter,” and yet at times he showed contempt, even loathing, for sports journalism and journalists. He even harbored an intense distaste for sports, his livelihood and the subject of more than a quarter of a century of his reporting.
“Sports has become the signal, the signpost of moral decay in this country,” he told Newsday reporter Lawrence C. Levy in 1989. “It’s a disgrace. . . . And I’m the only one who understood this and had the courage to tell it like it is.”
Cosell’s outbursts, particularly the sharp-edged criticism that runs through his three books, thinned his list of friends and admirers. Onetime associates broke off communication after being excoriated publicly by Cosell or after criticizing him. Cosell hardly seemed to mind. Even before retiring from “Monday Night Football,” he devoted much of his energy to other pursuits, teaching a course at Yale University and lecturing across the country. He received scores of honors and awards, including induction into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem bestowed upon him a rare honor by creating the Howard and Mary Edith Cosell Center for Physical Education. And the National Football League Alumni, whose members were often the object of Cosell’s withering attacks, nevertheless awarded him the Order of the Leather Helmet, the group’s highest honor.
“I never sought fame,” Cosell said. “I never sought celebrity status. It came to me because of the puerile field I was in, where I was different, where I had opinions and could state them and backed it up with an abundance of background and knowledge and the trust and respect of everybody who mattered in the field I was in.”
In his later years, Cosell finally drifted from the spotlight and seemed to mellow. After leaving “Monday Night Football,” he had mixed success with a few modest projects. He appeared on radio, devoted time to his academic pursuits and for a while wrote a syndicated newspaper column.
Emmy Cosell underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1988 and died in November, 1990. Family friends said Cosell never recovered. Even before she died, Cosell had become “utterly bored” with most sports and had stopped attending sporting events except to escort his grandchildren.
“That’s what my life is all about,” he said in 1990, shortly before his wife died. “That and hoping and praying that Emmy is all right. I’m the luckiest man who ever lived.”
Cosell is survived by two daughters, Jill and Hilary, and five grandchildren.
* DOWNEY COLUMN: Howard Cosell was unique--and part of our television upbringing. C1