Being a lawyer wasn’t bad enough. Howard Cosell would find a profession and a platform from which he could really infuriate the public.
In 1954 he abandoned his $30,000-a-year practice to take a $250-a-week job with ABC Radio doing a series of 5-minute sports broadcasts. From such humble beginnings was born the inspiration for the mute button.
“Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these,” Cosell once wrote. “Of course, I am.”
Comedian Buddy Hackett quipped, “There have always been mixed emotions about Howard Cosell. Some people hate him like poison - and some people just hate him regular.”
That was a persona that grew through his days as Muhammad Ali’s video Boswell, through his transformation as a cultural phenomenon on Monday Night Football, through his often bitter disassociation with television and to his death early Sunday morning. For all those years, as no other broadcast personality ever has or will, Cosell threw his polysyllabic self into the very center sport. When it came time to rake fingernails across the blackboard, no one had longer claws than Cosell.
Polls of the period would pronounce him both the most popular sportscaster, and least popular sportscaster, simultaneously. And those conflicting results were absolutely correct. He was it all.
“Telling it like it is” was Cosell’s trademark charge, one that he took to mean expressing as many opinions in as many words as possible. He was as confrontational as a guard dog. Even later, when it trembled in his palsied hand, the microphone was a powerful weapon when in his charge.
Cosell is given credit for introducing the concepts of journalism into sports broadcasting. This for the simple fact that he didn’t smile and nod his head - he pressed the point. When Cassius Clay changed his name to fit his religious conversion, Cosell called him Muhammad Ali while many stubbornly refused. When Curt Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause, when Ali stood against the war in Vietnam, Cosell found the right in the fight. In such instances, there was great integrity to his work.
“Only one person in the media called (Ali) by the name he had adopted,” Cosell proudly wrote. “I did this instantly. I could not have cared less what the public’s reaction would be toward me.”
In the Monday Night Football booth, he could be absolutely scathing, merciless. No one ever has bored into a listener’s brain so relentlessly, his nasal twang a diamondtipped bit. It made him one of those rare figures where an entire society would draw a line through him, and align itself on one side or the other.
“We were desecrating something,” said Roone Arledge, the inventor of MNF. “CBS had (nice guy) Ray Scott and now we had this loudmouthed Howard on TV questioning everything, yelling about what a dumb trade this was, and asking, ‘Don’t football players have rights?”’
Before we get weepy, we also must put Cosell’s life in as complete a context as possible. There are countless testimonies to his boorishness, made worse by drink. He was too quick to cruelty, especially toward some of those with whom he shared a booth. He insinuated himself upon the event too often, trying to compete with it rather than report on it. If there is one obituary that should not be sanitized, it is Cosell’s.
In his business, though, who out there now even is close to doing what Cosell did? There are wise-guys giving scores and highlights; there are ex-coaches screaming in our ear; there are former players torturing the native tongue. But there are no more self-appointed consciences.
Guess he made the right choice. There are plenty of lawyers. Cosell leaves behind the echo of a singular voice, one never to be spoken again.
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