Game Changer: Howard Cosell

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Game Changer: Howard Cosell
Apr 17, 2017

Howard Cosell was a legendary, but also polarizing sports broadcaster for ABC for thirty or so years in the second half of the 20th century. His obituary in the Washington Post described him as “arguably the best-known and most controversial sports broadcaster in the history of the medium.”

Although Cosell earned his law degree from New York University, he changed his career path to sports broadcasting in the mid-1950s after he started hosting a radio program where Little League players would ask major leaguers questions. This small show launched Cosell’s lofty career. For the next 30 plus years, Cosell would go on to transform the world of sports broadcasting from how it was formerly known. He announced boxing, a sport that sparked a friendly relationship between he and Muhammad Ali, and a sport that allowed him to deliver one of the most iconic lines of all time when he yelled, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” He was a key member of the three man broadcasting booth that helped put Monday Night football on the map and keep it there for the rest of the century. He also consistently flashed his journalistic chops including when he led the way in the production of Sportsbeat, the only television newsmagazine dedicated to sports when it debuted in 1985. Throughout all of these jobs, Cosell left a unique stamp on the industry with his willingness to tackle tough issues that past broadcasters would have sidestepped and with his willingness to offer unabashed criticism of anyone or anything that crossed his path. Cosell would become known for, as he himself described it, “telling it like it is.”

Muhammad Ali and Boxing

One thing that distinguished Howard Cosell from other broadcasters of his time was his relationship with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. While Ali is adored and beloved nowadays, he was a hotly controversial figure in the late 1960s and 1970s. Ali originally was known as Cassius Clay, but changed his name for religious reasons. Cosell was the first sportscaster to recognize Ali by his new name, an act that drew him a lot of scorn and contempt. That scorn and contempt Cosell received increased even more so after he defended Ali following his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. After Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title belt, Cosell in part said, “Nobody says a damned word about the professional football players who dodged the draft. But Muhammad was different; he was black and he was boastful.” Cosell’s favorable coverage and quasi advocacy for Ali is one of the preeminent examples of how he separated himself from other sportscasters of the time. While it gained him plenty of detractors and deriders, his coverage of Ali was just one example that showed he was unafraid to attack issues off the field, court, or in this case mat that other broadcasters would have avoided. Not only was he unafraid to talk about those subjects, but he was also willing to take unpopular stances that did him no favors with many members of his audience. Following Cosell’s death in 1995 Ali said, “I have been interviewed by many people, but I enjoyed interviews with Howard the best. I hope to meet him one day in the hereafter.”

Despite being a longtime boxing announcer, Cosell abruptly quit the sport in 1982, and he basically did it while he was in the middle of calling a match. The bout he was calling was between the then heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and a wildly overmatched challenger in Randall “Tex” Cobb. As he watched Holmes rough up Cobb, Cosell lost interest and even became disgusted with a sport he now found brutal. While some print sports writers hammered him for this flip-flopping in a sport he once celebrated, this transformation is just another example of what set Cosell apart from the rest of his fellow broadcasters. Acknowledging Cosell’s distinctiveness, Robert Lipsyte wrote in his 1975 book, “He is the only broadcaster in America who can be the promoter, the reporter and the critic packaged and merchandised by his own network.” I think that statement may even hold today. It’s rare to see a broadcaster call out or take a shot at the network he or she works for because many are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them.

Monday Night Football

In 1970 Roone Arledge chose Cosell to be the third man in the booth with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith in the risky venture that was Monday Night Football. Moving an NFL game to the evening was far from a guarantee to succeed, but the three-man team and Cosell especially helped make football a fixture in houses on Monday nights in the fall. Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated wrote, “For 14 seasons Cosell amused, amazed, outraged, annoyed and attracted audiences, building the Monday-night broadcast into something that was often bigger than the game itself.” It’s difficult for young people like me who never got a chance to hear Cosell to grasp that idea that people tuned in for Monday Night Football not for the game but for the broadcast. However, that simply seems to be the impact Cosell had. Frank Deford, in a 1983 feature on Cosell, wrote, “There are all these people, these fans, who claim that when Cosell does a game on television, they turn off the sound on the TV and listen to the radio broadcast. Oh, sure. You probably know critics in your neighborhood who vow the same thing. Well, too bad for them. Don’t they understand? Cosell isn’t television. He’s not audio. Howard Cosell is sports in our time. Feel sorry for the people who turn off the sound. The poor bastards missed the game.” ESPN recently tried to recreate Cosell like magic in the Monday Night booth in the form of Tony Kornheiser. That experiment failed miserably, however. I guess there’s only one Howard Cosell.

Sportsbeat and Journalism

While Howard Cosell was an icon for the way that he talked and the words that came out of his mouth, it can’t be ignored that he also was a talented, innovative journalist. Before Cosell arrived on the scene, a lot of sportscasters didn’t do much of their own reporting and just read statistics and facts from wire services. Cosell wanted to change that. Deford wrote, “When Cosell first staggered into locker rooms weighted down by his gear, radio sports was still a studio enterprise. Only after him came the transistors and an army of young imitators attached to microphones, invading newspaper territory, thrusting their mics into athletes’ faces.” Cosell clearly blazed a trail.

Cosell’s drive to do good journalism continued into the latter days of his career after he left Monday Night Football and started the television newsmagazine, Sportsbeat. The show, while only lasting three months due to the release of one of Cosell’s bridge burning books, won three Emmy awards during that short time. Furthermore, it set the table for numerous sports journalism dedicated shows in the future, such as Real Sports, E:60, and Outside the Lines.

There’s no doubt that Howard Cosell is one of the most revered and reviled broadcasters in history. Whether you liked him or hated him though, you have to admit that he changed the game of sports broadcasting with his desire to do his own great reporting and his fearlessness to tell it like it is no matter what the reaction would be from those in the audience or those participating in the game.

Thomas Pullano is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. This is a result of the assignment of profiling a “Game Changer” in sports journalism.

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