The Legacy and Legend of Howard Cosell ‘s eulogy to an American broadcasting icon.

North County 4/26/95


Howard CosellThis country has not known a more influential journalist than Howard Cosell. His innate ability to dissect an event, infiltrate a personality and offer honest analysis at the point of attack made him a unique voice in an otherwise antiseptic profession. The resonance of his talent is an echo in the world of reporting today, but it is a faint reminder of the man whose voice served as a sonic boom that shook the walls and shattered the windows of broadcasting.

Ironically, Cosell died quietly this past weekend after a private three-year battle with cancer at the age of 77. The doctor’s report told the world it was a heart embolism, but anyone who knew anything about the attorney with a microphone and the massive chip on his hunched shoulder was convinced that he was too stubborn to succumb to anything, much less a deadly disease.

His staccato delivery was immediate legend, his hawkish looks an instant caricature and his powerful ego a massive hammer swung sometimes with little control, if not definite, direction. These were the odd attributes that combined to make Cosell a superstar among faceless haircuts and scribbling notepads. But his greatest asset was that he was utterly fearless. There was no crusade too big, no injustice too imposing, and no human power too intimidating for his prodding sarcasm and razor-sharp wit. “I tell it like it is,” was his catch-phrase.

“I did what I believed in,” he reflected to a reporter a few years ago. “I saw myself as a person who wanted to bring to public attention that which I thought was wrong. No more. No less.”

Throughout the 60s’ and 70s’ the appearance of Cosell at a sporting event signified its importance. If there was ever a question of its relevance, it was answered by his presence alone.

He was the living embodiment of the first amendment and the shining example of what truths can be uncovered by the oft-challenged “freedom of press”.

Not unlike John F. Kennedy and the Beatles, Howard Cosell was a figure perfectly fit for the times in which he found himself. Ten years earlier, or perhaps, even ten years later, an editorial voice like Cosell’s might have been shoved aside as too assertive, or worse yet, ignored altogether. But in the age following McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a country swirling in the tornado of events from Vietnam to Watergate we were just cynical and thick-skinned enough to handle him.

He could have covered any corner of the news, but chose sports because of the immediacy and likelihood of the impossible to explode at anytime. Moreover, he precociously knew sports needed him. “If ever a broadcaster sought to bring sports out of the banal,” he once mused, “this, you see, is my mission.”

Throughout the 60s’ and 70s’ the appearance of Cosell at a sporting event signified its importance. If there was ever a question of its relevance, it was answered by his presence alone. In one predictably pompous moment, he once compared his celebrity to Walter Cronkite. But unlike the security and warmth of Uncle Walty at the time of breaking news or crisis, Cosell exuded the fastidious tension of a literate watch dog that needed not only an answer, but the answer.

If there was no Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali would have still been an icon for a generation locked in turbulence, people would’ve still crowded into bars on Monday nights to watch prime time football, the tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics would’ve had the same impact on a stunned and riveted television audience, Joe Willie Namath would still have his middle name, Chris Chambliss would’ve probably hit that homer to win the pennant for the Yankees, and Joe Frazier still would have tumbled to the canvas under the thunderous blow of the brooding force of young George Foreman.

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The difference is that Cosell was there, and for some strange reason, we remember that. Cosell and the event seemed to take on an inseparable quality as time passed. Yet, despite his propensity to find a space in the spotlight of a sporting event, like an annoying relative trying to squeeze into a family snapshot, Cosell never usurped the game itself. He somehow joined its magnitude by riding along, often times actually becoming the only voice that mattered when the dust settled.

He could sense a story as it unfolded and enlarge its aura as if it were a moment already recorded, digested and reflected in history.

In this way, Cosell clung to the light and fury that was Muhammad Ali, arguably the largest sports figure of the 20th century. When the young heavyweight, Cassius Clay embraced the Muslim faith and changed his name, only Cosell would honor it by calling him Ali during interviews. When Ali fought the draft because of his religious beliefs, and was stripped of his championship belt, Cosell was there beside him.

Cosell’s interviews with the always poetic and vociferous Ali were masterpieces in entertainment. “I’ll take you out Cosell,” Ali would pronounce with that ever-present smile biting down on his bottom lip. “I’ll knock you out and take that rug off your head.”

“You wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me,” Cosell would quip in his laconic drone.

His powerful radio show, “Speaking of Sports” lasted the longest of any of his projects. Probably because he didn’t have to share the spotlight with anyone else. And when I was a kid, it punched its way through the mono speaker on my little portable every Sunday morning. He took on racism, the wrongful treatment of pro athletes by monolithic leagues, the absence of a commissioner for prize fighting; but it what made those shows special, was those priceless moments when a unsuspecting guest would need to wiggle out of a finger-pointing diatribe on the hypocrisy of something somewhere.

Cosell’s best-known pulpit was the crowded booth on of the most popular experiments in network history. Monday Night Football was the perfect place for his pedantry and bluster, and he made it his stage. A man who had never played the sport, offering strong commentary, most of it derisive, led to a TV Guide poll that during the mid 70s’ had him the most hated and most loved sportscaster of all.

After denouncing boxing as a “disgusting mess” and pro football as a “stagnant bore”, Howard Cosell rode off into the sunset, leaving a 35-year body of work in his indignant wake. His last public jab came in the form of his fourth book, What’s Wrong with Sports, a truculent attack on everything he ever encountered along the way. Cosell went out the way he came in–swinging.

Howard Cosell never received a big sendoff like Johnny Carson of Cronkite, but one would have to wonder if he would’ve either expected or embraced it. But every one of us who have ever offered an opinion or covered an event, or tried to procure a quote from a newsworthy subject have a debt to pay to Howard Cosell. Because in the end, reporting is the search for truth, and as a reporter, you’d hope a little justice prevails. Right or wrong, the reporter strives to, at the very least, make people think. That is Howard Cosell’s legacy.

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