Remembering Howard Cosell: Why Did He Become So Disillusioned With Sports?

Remembering Howard Cosell: Why Did He Become So Disillusioned With Sports?

NFL

Remembering Howard Cosell: Why Did He Become So Disillusioned With Sports?

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Howard Cosell passed away 20 years ago this month. In this three-part series, we will be looking back on his contributions to sports media.

Two funerals, nine years apart, illustrated Howard Cosell’s changing sentiments toward the National Football League. The first was Vince Lombardi’s in 1970. Cosell knew the legendary Packers coach from when they had collaborated on a television adaptation of Run to Daylight, the book that Lombardi wrote with W.C. Heinz, and the memorial did the man justice. “When the funeral service finally ended, we all solemnly spilled out onto Fifth avenue, our eyes red from tears,” Cosell wrote in his third memoir, I Never Played the Game, which he authored with Peter Bonventre in 1985.

In that book, he thoroughly detailed his disgust with the sports that his voice had defined, taking no prisoners amongst their administrators and media — especially those who he worked alongside at ABC. In an era with three television stations, and without specialized sports talk radio and Internet, Cosell, at one point or another, was a broadcaster on Monday Night Football, the World Series, scores of prominent heavyweight boxing matches, the Olympics, and the Kentucky Derby. Many of the issues that he railed against in Never Played are still relevant 30 years later.

The tasteful and reverential ceremony for Lombardi was easily juxtaposed with the 1979 funeral for Los Angeles Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom, which Cosell described as “half-time entertainment.” The memorial service was a Hollywood social gala attended by over 600 guests, it featured musical numbers as well as an uncomfortable stand-up routine from comedian Jonathan Winters, and Rosenbloom’s widow, Georgia, arrived almost an hour late. The tone of the afternoon continued to be anything but funereal. As Cosell was exiting, he was accosted by Vikings owner Max Winter, who yelled at him for going on television and speaking out against holding up the local government for a new stadium: “I hope to hell you’re satisfied.”

FRANCHISE RELOCATION

Cosell assured Winter that the Vikings would receive their new publicly-financed stadium independently of his broadcast, and, well, that happened and has since happened repeatedly in professional sports. Franchise relocation, and threatening to move without receiving public funding, was a pet cause of Cosell’s dating back to when he lost his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. While baseball teams’ moves cooled down after 1971, NFL owners were increasingly seeking greener pastures.

“The National Football League had several teams that skipped from one location to another,” Cosell wrote of the 1970’s. “Creating a bewildering maze of intertwining issues and personalities–and turning the league itself into a Byzantine empire of political intrigue, corporate skulduggery, and legal manipulations. The public may think the games are sacred — but in reality, they are merely a cloak behind which the sports operators can masquerade.”

Cosell even loathed local moves, arguing that the Giants’ relocation in the early 70’s and Jets’ in the early 80’s from New York City across state lines to the Meadowlands, which were connected to shady horse track deals, were crushing blows to a city amid ideological and financial crises. He also excoriated Carroll Rosenbloom for their 1978 move from Los Angeles, where the team had played since 1946, to Anaheim, though the irony from the Dodgers heist was not lost on Cosell. “This was the city that had invented the sports franchise rip-off and patented the land grab, and now it was time for Los Angeles to pay the price,” he wrote.

Cosell made it clear that these moves were not due to dire financial situations. Teams were profitable. Owners wanted more. “What interests me is the human dimension of this story — how the spirit of countless people is dashed and their loyalty subverted by wealthy owners who skip town to become even wealthier, and how the mere threat of franchise removal continues to bring great cities to their knees as they scramble to mollify owners with new stadiums and other expensive perquisites and maintain their big-league image,” he wrote. “In almost every case, it’s the fans who get ripped off. Either they lose their home team to another city, or they end up paying additional taxes that keep an owner in limousines and Acapulco vacations.”

FALLING OUT WITH ROZELLE

In 1982, Cosell testified in Congress in support of a bill proposed by Senator Arlen Specter calling for teams to prove economic distress over a three-year period before relocating. (It didn’t pass.) Ironically enough, it would be Cosell’s perceived favoritism towards league office nemesis Al Davis in his quest to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles against the wishes of the NFL that was the catalyst for the deterioration of Cosell’s relationship with Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

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Rozelle, who had advocated for Cosell to land his broadcasting role at the onset of Monday Night Football in 1970, wrote a letter (remember those?) to Cosell in 1982 accusing him of staying “totally silent” about the Raiders when he had previously castigated all other moves. “I can only conclude that you have compelling reasons for your unprecedented position due to your close personal relationship and contact with Al Davis,” Rozelle wrote. Then-Chargers owner Gene Klein, in a confrontation Rozelle would later say was out of line, told Cosell that he was Davis’s “goddamn whore.”

There was always a dichotomy with Howard Cosell. Though he is deservedly credited for introducing the idea of sports journalism to broadcast radio and television, it also wasn’t totally out of the question for him to give favorable treatment to colorful subjects. He expressed a predilection for “mavericks,” as he called them. Davis fit this bill. As did George Steinbrenner, Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, John McEnroe, and Muhammad Ali (who we’ll talk more about later). Rozelle, on the other hand, was 180 degrees straight.

“Cosell did have a lawyer’s logical clarity,” Robert Lipsyte, who wrote for the New York Times, as well as for Cosell’s short-lived variety show in the mid-70’s, and recently finished his stint as ESPN’s Ombudsman, told me. “But on the other hand, he also could be entranced by Al Davis. He loved a character — particularly if they were nice to him.”

For his part, Cosell contended that he was clear and candid in his position that Davis was morally wrong, but legally in the clear, to relocate the Raiders. As he was not shy about bringing up, Cosell was in his 30s when he dropped his bourgeoning law practice to try his hand at radio broadcasting. Though he’d had the unwavering approval of his wife, Emmy, who traveled nearly everywhere with Cosell throughout his career, he wrote in his first memoir that his father urged him to return to law — and solicited Emmy to urge him to do so — right up to his dying breath in 1957.

Cosell’s legal opinion was that the NFL’s bylaws requiring three-quarters of owners to approve a franchise relocation left the league vulnerable to antitrust laws, where necessitating a simple majority may not have. Given that Rozelle was an ardent defender of The Shield, and that Davis was his white whale, anybody who was not 100% on his side in this dispute was the exact opposite.

Cosell gave Rozelle immense credit for building the league into a behemoth (according to Cosell, annual television revenue alone soared from $4.6 million in 1962 to $400 million in 1982), and referred to him as “the finest commissioner in the history of professional sport,” but came to resent the orchestrated manner in which Rozelle massaged his reputation in the media. From I Never Played the Game:

Let’s face it: Rozelle does have an engaging personality. People like him. Always tanned and impeccably groomed, he’s like velvet to the touch. Loath to offend anyone, he’s cool and patient. And those who know him best say he’s a compassionate and decent man.

The word most often attached to Rozelle, however, is “slick.” At heart, he is and always will be a PR man, and he admits as much. But he’s somewhat uncomfortable with the label — “slick” has so many connotations. It can mean smooth or calculating, confident or conniving. When embodied in Rozelle, it probably means all those things. And as a result, most people find it practically impossible to paint a complete picture of the man. He closely guards his privacy, and there are precious few revealing anecdotes that bridge the gaps. But one thing I know for certain: Rozelle is a superb manipulator of people — and he’s at his best when he’s manipulating the media.

While Cosell was polarizing — according to a 1983 Frank Deford SI cover story, a TV Guide poll had “found him, indisputably, the most liked and disliked announcer in sports” a few years back — he had been, by this point, a massive American celebrity for nearly two decades. Probably a more famous face of the NFL than any of its players during the Al Davis wars, Cosell was regularly going on national radio and television and opining against Rozelle’s position. At this stage of his profound accomplishment, the inextricability between himself and league matters, and his bitter hatred of Davis, it’s hardly surprising that the Commissioner would feel personally slighted by Cosell’s professional (and oft-stated) legalese.

Compounding the matter, Cosell also happened to be right. Davis not only won the case, he was awarded substantial damages. Throughout the 1980’s, the NFL was embroiled in a never-ending series of courtroom battles. Speaking on a 1987 appearance on David Letterman’s show, Cosell noted that this was one of the reasons he stopped announcing games for the league and said, “Quite clearly they’ve been adjudicated to be an illegal monopoly in every jurisdiction where the issue’s been tried.”

Letterman asked Cosell how he would have handled the responsibility to announce NFL games with replacement players during the 1987 strike. “With total contempt,” Cosell said. “I don’t believe in scab football.”

LEAVING BOXING

“Boxing is drama on its grandest scale,” wrote Howard Cosell. “No other athletic event is as electrifying as a championship fight. I continued to cover boxing perhaps longer than I should have because of my admiration for the fighters, their earthiness, and their honesty. Generally speaking, the ones who become champions spring from poverty; they work harder and sacrifice more than other athletes. Rarely do they make excuses. They have no teammates to lean on. They are out there all alone, exposed, vulnerable, valiantly summoning up reserves of courage in situations where a lot of other athletes would simply call it quits.”

As with professional football, there were a litany of issues that Howard Cosell rightfully had with boxing. The match that pushed him away for good occurred in late 1982. Larry Holmes fought Randall Cobb in a mismatch that never should have happened in the first place, and certainly should’ve been called countless times along the way. Multiple fighters had died in the ring in the months before this fight, and Cosell’s disgust for the officiating in this match came through loud and clear on the broadcast.

Speaking with Dave Kindred, then of the Washington Post, a few days after the fight, Cosell announced that he would never call another professional boxing match. Cosell could no longer tolerate sleazy promoters like Don King and Bob Arum — who remained disruptive forces in the sport long after Cosell was gone; King fleeced Mike Tyson out of millions while Arum has been a major factor in the fact that Mayweather-Pacquaio has taken so damn long to happen — and called on the television networks to stop airing boxing until there was federal regulation of the sport to ensure standardization of fighter ratings, medical examinations, and safety precautions.

Much of the sporting press felt that Cosell was grandstanding, and that this was an easy route for him to take at this point. “It was the knock against him that it was convenient now that Muhammad Ali was no longer there,” Dave Kindred told me. “Critics would say, ‘You rode that Ali comet for 20 years, now that it’s done it’s very convenient for you to say that boxing is awful. While it was providing you fame and fortune, it was okay.’”

“I was simply following my conscience,” Cosell retorted about the sportswriting establishment. “Obviously, though, many of my critics in the sportswriting fraternity were afraid of their myopic little world being imperiled, and they lashed out at me with a vengeance. None of them, by the way, dared mention that I was forfeiting between $500,000 and $1 million a year by walking away from boxing. Why not? Because it would have impugned their slurs against me as a hypocrite and a shill. Their primary interest was carrying on their hateful, twenty-five-year-old literary pogrom against me and the hell with examining the sordid situation that prompted my decision.”

In 1984, Muhammad Ali, of whom Cosell was the most attached to of anybody throughout his career in broadcasting, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Ali was just 42 years old, and this was likely a direct result of having fought in upwards of a dozen matches too many. Though Cosell did not pity Ali, who had led a tremendous life up to that point, it did sadden the broadcaster that the fighter would not be whole to accomplish more late in his life.

After he left boxing, Cosell would cite numerous studies on his SportsBeat program about brain trauma that the fighters endured, and continued to advocate for federal regulation. At the end of his chapters on boxing in I Never Played the Game, Cosell called for boxing’s abolition.

END OF AN ERA

Howard Cosell came to national prominence through his association with Muhammad Ali, and coverage of his fights, but he became a megastar with his role on the Monday Night Football package, which began in 1970. “With MNF, Cosell was the perfect broadcaster,” wrote longtime newspaperman Dave Kindred in Sound and Fury, a dual biography of Cosell and Ali, about the stretch in the 70’s when the program was at its peak. “He was as opinionated as the next guy at the bar; this thunderous bombast matched the game’s, and his feel for a storyline added richness to the drama of human competition that [Roone] Arledge had long ago identified as the heart of ABC sports coverage. Only Cosell could do what he did.”

“Without Cosell, televised sports might never have come out of the furnished basements and into the family rooms, out of the desert wasteland of the weekend afternoon and into the teeming marketplace of prime time,” Tony Kornheiser wrote in the Washington Post in 1984, after Cosell had left Monday Night Football. “There were plenty of games to watch on Sunday. Monday had to be more than a game to develop and hold an audience. By standing parallel to the game and owing nothing to it, by demystifying it, by bullying it and not being bullied by it, Cosell made it into an Event. Now it is part of American pop culture.”

When Cosell left Monday Night Football after the 1983 season, it was more complicated than just his disgust with the NFL’s institutional greed. By the end of his run, he had thorough contempt for both the games, which had grown boring for him, and for his booth-mates, which included Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and OJ Simpson, who he regarded as beneficiaries of the so-called Jockocracy. The phrase had been introduced to Cosell by his friend and then New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte, who himself had heard it from the feminist activist Flo Kennedy. “Howard gave me credit the first few times, and then it was his,” Lipsyte wrote in his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.

Though Cosell praised Rocky Marciano for teaching him boxing, and professed to enjoy the commentary of former athletes Pat Summerall, Bob Uecker, and Ahmad Rashad, he resented the easy path for most from the field to the announcing booth, and the effect it had on the broadcast. From Never Played:

Generally speaking, these alleged analysts and colormen serve a limited role — and they rarely proved themselves capable of bridging the gap between entertainment and journalism. The bottom line: They are not communicators. How many times must the viewing public be subjected to the same old worn-out bromides?

To beat the zone, folks, the tight end has to shoot the seam underneath the safety and behind the linebackers. Turnovers will kill you. He read the blitzing safety, checked off the line, then dumped the pass to the halfback in the flat. Dropped passes will kill you. It’s a mismatch, fans. They’ve isolated the setback one-on-one against the linebacker, and you can’t let them get away with that. Missed tackles will kill you. He came to play. They dodged a bullet on that play. They dodged a major bullet on that play. What moves!

Put an ex-jock in the booth, and their cliché-ridden presentation of a game is the least of their sins. As a result of their lack of training, most of them are blessedly lost when trying to establish a storyline for a telecast — i.e., detecting trends, keying on the personality and experiences of a player as they relate to his performance on the field, knowing his strengths and weaknesses, recalling the flow of events from earlier in the game and from other games in other years. Thus, they tend to view a game as a series of plays rather than as a contest, and often they are ignorant of the human perspective.

At their apex, Cosell, Meredith, and Gifford had impeccable chemistry. “Placing Cosell in the booth with Meredith was a true inspiration,” Bob Ryan wrote in the Boston Globe in 2005. “It was the colossally arrogant New Yorker vs. the folksy Texan, who loved nothing better than to fire away at Cosell’s pomposity. There was never a doubt that Meredith was 100 percent honest. He didn’t play-act. When he thought Cosell was being ridiculous, or had just stepped into a football matter that was way over his toupeed head, he said so. In the middle was Frank Gifford, a superstar jock turned average play-by-play man. He had clout and was not just another broadcast traffic cop.”

By the time they’d run their course, Cosell was ruthlessly critical of their broadcasting abilities — both indirectly, as in the blockquoted passage above, and by name. “There is nothing controversial about [Gifford],” Cosell 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 … Meredith rarely prepared for a telecast in the manner of a professional broadcaster. Putting the games in their proper perspective is one thing, but he often showed no interest at all.”

Cosell could write things like this, and exhaustively bemoan the flaws of others in conversation, but would be beside himself whenever criticism was directed at him in print or in person. “He felt free to spew contempt, but, at the same time, insisted on your adoration,” wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick.

External criticism reached a fever pitch in 1983 when Cosell remarked on Washington’s Alvin Garrett, “That little monkey gets loose.” Having clearly said that, Cosell exacerbated matters by issuing a clumsy denial shortly thereafter on air. “What he meant to deny was that the phrase carried any suggestions of race,” Kindred wrote. “But the denial was done so imprecisely as to compound the problem by seeming to deny words recorded on tape.”

Though it’s often implied that unfair outrage stories are a new phenomenon with social media, Cosell found himself a target of newspaper headlines where a prominent reverend had called a remark disparaging. This was all off-base. Cosell had an unimpeachable record on race, from his friendship with and adoration of Jackie Robinson, his support of Curt Flood, giving air-time to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and the whole tenure of his relationship with Muhammad Ali.

In any event, this was about the final straw for Cosell on the Monday Night Football broadcast. Cosell had always had a combative relationship with the ink press. There were a few writers he liked, such as Dave Kindred, Robert Lipsyte, Tony Kornheiser, and Mike Lupica, but he despised and was despised by nearly everybody else — most notably the columnists Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young. “Someone at Young’s paper once wrote that he ‘stalks Cosell as Inspector Javert did Jean Valjean,'” Frank Deford recounted in SI.

With the compounded beating he’d taken in the press for years, the demands and pressures of being a workaholic and celebrity, his ever-increasing vodka consumption, the antipathy toward the program from his wife, Emmy, and all of the frustrations we’ve heretofore discussed, Cosell could no longer endure. He nominally left Monday Night Football on his own volition. However, he had threatened to quit many times over the years, but Roone Arledge had always indulged his ego and talked him out of it. This time there was no intervention. “He was ultimately eased out, as everybody is,” Robert Lipsyte told me.

“The chief believed the show’s ratings were down at least partly because viewers sensed that the vein of fun in the Cosell-Dandy Don dialogues had become so thin to reveal animosity,” Kindred wrote. “Cosell’s unwillingness to acknowledge the complexities of football strategy, tactics, and techniques came across as contempt for the sport. Arledge told friends that Pete Rozelle, once Cosell’s champion, wanted him off the broadcasts. The drinking, temper tantrums, charges that ‘the jocks’ conspired against him — Arledge had had enough.”

It’s hardly surprising that I Never Played the Game, released about two years after he left MNF, did little to improve his relations with Arledge (who, while given a lot of credit for his role in Cosell’s ascent, was also sniped at a bit) and ABC. Cosell had remained contributing to baseball coverage and hosting SportsBeat, the journalistically acclaimed magazine-style program that was something of a precursor to Outside the Lines. When the book came out and had the obvious ripple effect of juicy quotes highlighted in reviews, Cosell and ABC were no more.

Years later, Roone Arledge was still flummoxed as Cosell grew more and more embittered. With all they’d achieved in sports television, the later years should have been their gracious victory lap. “He should be the elder statesman of all sports people,” Arledge said around the 28:30-mark of a 1991 interview aired by Robert Lipsyte on ESPN. “He should be sought after for guest appearances constantly. He should be on selected programs that he feels like doing. He should have outlets that should be clamoring for him. But, he has shut almost all of that off by his own actions.”

“He also has alienated an awful lot of the people that he used to work with because of the various books that he’s written — some of which seemed gratuitous,” Arledge continued. “You wonder why he goes out of his way to alienate people who he worked with. I guess part of what made Howard the reporter that he has been, and the personality, is that he has a compulsion to say things that are on his mind. If he gets a cause — sometimes they’re great, noble causes like Ali, and sometimes they’re small, little causes like proving that so-and-so’s a phony or whatever — he approaches that with equal fervor.”

Ultimately, as Arledge alluded to, everything that had driven Cosell to become arguably the most significant sports television presence of all-time (nobody has come close to the breadth of his reporting and broadcasting, though Bob Costas is a pretty clear second), and to be so damn compelling, hastened what became a precipitous fall from grace.

“Howard would keep a team of psychiatrists busy 24 hours a day trying to figure him out,” Kindred told me. “I don’t think there was ever any understanding of everything that went through his mind, except that he was so insecure all the time. Insecure about his looks. Insecure about his voice. Insecure about all criticism. He needed to have his ass kissed all the time. And, ABC could do that because they needed him. People loved him and people hated him, but they watched him.”

[Lead Graphic by Rubie Edmondson/USA Today]

 

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