Howard Cosell: A broadcasting original


Howard Cosell, who died yesterday at 77, was at his core a shameless self-promoter, full of bombast, self-importance and self-righteousness, the kinds of qualities that routinely made him America's least-liked sportscaster in a series of TV Guide polls.

"Oh, this horizontal ladder of mediocrity," Cosell said in a 1967 Sports Illustrated profile. "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."

But Cosell, whose nasal voice and stentorian approach often were imitated, was a skilled broadcaster, a man with a seemingly innate gift for making the often stirring pictures of his medium take a back seat to his rich vocabulary, for bringing integrity and journalism to his craft and for "telling it like it is."

Cosell, who underwent cancer surgery in 1991, died of a heart embolism at NYU's Hospital for Joint Diseases, said his grandson, Justin Cohane.

"He opened up the field for truth and honesty. The sports broadcasting world owes a tremendous debt to Howard Cosell," said Chet Forte, former director of ABC's "Monday Night Football," the program that made Cosell a household name.

Cosell was the most influential sportscaster ever to sit behind a microphone, a man who made it possible for today's elite announcers to approach their business as something more than fun and games, not to mention making ABC the network of record for sports, along with colleague Jim McKay and former sports president Roone Arledge.

Because of Cosell, boxing regained and later relost the stature it had attained in the 1940s and '50s, thanks to his ringside descriptions of some of the greatest fights of the past 30 years and his later disgust with perceived irregularities in the sport.

A mouthy heavyweight named Cassius Clay became a reviled, then respected, then revered champion named Muhammad Ali, partly because of his connection to Cosell, who was one of the first journalists to recognize the boxer's conversion to Islam and to stand behind Ali's avoidance of the draft during the height of Vietnam War tensions.

And the presence of Cosell, next to Frank Gifford and "Dandy" Don Meredith in America's living room each Monday night, helped vault the NFL past baseball as the new national pastime.

Cosell was in his mid-30s -- far older than most people who begin a sportscasting career -- and deep into his career as a New York attorney when he chucked the legal profession in 1956 for sports broadcasting, working as a radio reporter for $250 a week.

Cosell never ducked controversy, laying the early groundwork for the sportscasting profession to move into exploration of important issues. He was one of the first to support John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's black-power salute on the medals stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and challenged baseball's insistence on the reserve clause.

Though he would retain a radio presence throughout his career, with, among other things, a daily commentary that he did until his retirement in 1992, Cosell was destined to make his mark in television, and when he came to "Monday Night Football" as one of the original trio of announcers in 1970, he was likewise destined to be different from anything anyone ever had heard calling sports on the tube.

For many, "MNF" was never the same piece of American theater after his departure from the booth in 1983. Likewise, when Cosell left boxing a year before, on the grounds that the game had been overtaken by nefarious types, the sport lost much of its magic, at least on television.

His pompous delivery was completely ill-suited for any play-by-play role outside of boxing, but Cosell came to think of such announcers as shills for the teams or sports they called. Cosell often raged on about the "jockocracy' that ruled sports broadcasting, and his withering criticisms of Gifford in his autobiography, "I Never Played the Game," opened a rift between the two that was still open at the time of Cosell's death.

The gulf between Cosell and other sports announcers could be seen in that, and though his "ABC SportsBeat" documentaries ** won three sports Emmy awards and Cosell twice was chosen a Poynter Fellow at Yale University for "significant contributions in the media," he never received a sportscasting award from his peers.

In his 1989 book, "The Game Behind the Game," Terry O'Neil, who produced "MNF" in the early 1980s, described Cosell as a spiteful man who could not forgive even the tiniest perceived slight and who resented the stardom of Gifford and Meredith, whom he believed to be his inferiors.

"Whom did these [network] executives prefer on their sports broadcasts?" O'Neil wrote. "Ex-athletes, virile-looking men with straight teeth, pleasant manner and Christian-sounding names, men like Gifford and Meredith -- in Cosell's words, 'men without intellect, without training, without my background at law, without the spontaneity of articulation that I possess. In other words, the jockocracy.' "

Cosell's dislike of the press was legendary, especially the feud he had with the late New York columnist Dick Young, who said of Cosell in Sports Illustrated: "You've got to treat Howard the way he treats you. You've got to throw his flamboyant junk back in his face."

Said Forte: "He would say, 'I don't care what the press says about me,' then say, 'Did you read what the so-and-so Tribune wrote about me?' " said Forte. "Nobody likes to be ridiculed, and Howard ultimately felt the press was after him. I believe it really bothered him that he really wasn't respected by the press."

In his later years, especially after the 1990 death of his wife, Emmy, Cosell came to be seen as an angry old man, railing at the profession that made him one of the most recognized figures in America.

The ravages of illness kept him a recluse, and he did not appear earlier this year to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY awards ceremony, sending his friend Bill Cosby in his stead.

Forte, now a San Diego sports talk show host, who was likely closer to Cosell than anyone else in the profession, said: "I backed up Howard 100 percent of the time at ABC because most of the time he was right. People at ABC would say I was Howard's guy. Well, I'm Howard's guy, because Howard's right."

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