It was September 1987, and Howard Cosell announced his return to television, after a two-year hiatus, as the host of a weekly syndicated talk show. Why was he coming back? "I had public reaction to my absence in television," he intoned at the time, "that can only be called incredible."
It is January 1992, and Howard Cosell has announced his retirement from broadcasting. Public reaction to his impending absence (most newspapers carried just a paragraph or two in a wire-service roundup) can only be called incredible—the most significant sportscaster of his time reduced to just another insignificant sports story of the day.
To be sure, Cosell worked his last Monday Night Football broadcast more than eight years ago, and the moment he left that prime-time pulpit he vanished from most viewers' sight. More recently, there has been a steady deterioration of Cosell's image, fostered by former colleagues. Much of the public disregards him; much of the TV industry castigates him.
Many of us never cared for Cosell's performance on Monday Night Football or Monday Night Baseball or his short-lived Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell variety hour, on which he once sang a duct with Barbara Walters. And then, of course, there were his personal excesses—he was a bit arrogant, pompous, vain, intolerant, haughty, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, loud, abrasive, condescending, impatient, tempestuous, grating, verbose and egomaniacal.
Yet the Cosell-bashing of the late 1980s and early '90s neglects a simple fact: In his best years, he was far out in front of the sports journalism pack. Yes, he had some ridiculous lows, but I'll take Cosell's highs against the field, and he wins that race by 31 lengths.
In the history of televised sports, three legends—all from ABC—stand out: Roone Arledge, Jim McKay and Cosell. Arledge was behind the camera on Wide World of Sports, the Olympics and Monday Night Football; McKay was in front of it on Wide World and the Olympics; and Cosell was the soul of Monday Night Football.
For 14 seasons beginning in 1970, Cosell amused and agitated millions of viewers on Monday nights in the fall. Some, indeed, did turn down the sound. But the growth of Monday Night Football both paralleled and fueled that of the NFL; these days Monday Night Football is rated among prime time's top 10 shows, and Super Bowl Sunday is as much a national holiday as the Fourth of July.
Whether we liked him or not, Cosell brought sports into the cultural mainstream. He dared to say that sports was at once more than a game and just a game. He is forever linked with perhaps the two most transcendent athletes of the last hall century, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. On countless issues—Ali's refusing to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War, Curt Flood's challenge of the baseball reserve clause, the NFL's partial exemption from antitrust laws, player-management unrest, the sour mix of world politics and the Olympic movement, the Al Davis—NFL court battles—Cosell ventured where few others in the sports media had the courage to go.
In addition, he was a terrific boxing broadcaster, working solo. ("Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!!!") Putting an analyst with him on fight broadcasts would've been like assigning a partner to Columbo on homicide eases.
Cosell seemed to walk a fine line in a complex business. Part newsman and part entertainer, he frequently veered from the socially significant to the shallow schlock his industry often demanded. In his 1975 book Sports World, Robert Lipsyte wrote of Cosell: "He is the only broadcaster in America who can be the promoter, the reporter, and the critic of an event packaged and merchandised by his own network.... Cosell is the franchise. He may also be the most valuable property in American sports." With Cosell, it wasn't only his message, it was also the manner in which he delivered it.