In Praise of A Riveting New Biography on Howard Cosell
“May you live in interesting times.”
– Ancient Chinese Proverb
“My disposition demands the immediacy of translation of effort into result.”
– Howard Cosell
I last sent words to press on the subject of Howard Cosell in April of 1995 for a now defunct weekly on the occasion of the legendary broadcaster’s death. Yet, in every piece I’ve researched, each story I’ve covered or subject dissected in a column since, his spirit resonates.
Like nearly everyone from my generation, and the one preceding it, we began by hating Cosell; his sneering egoism, the pompous self-congratulatory harangue that fueled an incessant rambling myopia never failing to garble our sports viewing experience. Certainly, it was a strange preternatural hate, a raging abhorrence that comes from somewhere not altogether rational. But unlike many of my friends, I aspired at an early age to be a broadcaster, mainly of sports. So Howard Cosell became in many ways a touchstone; he was no ex-jock, hardly a handsome television prop, and there was something emancipating about his brashly opinionated and wholly pathological style. If nothing else, the man had balls.
In 1995, still in the midst of my sports writing, I penned this:
“This 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.”
A fairly blubbering tribute for the previously despised, but aside from finally laying to rest the paradox of the love/hate aspect of a Howard Cosell, it missed one key ingredient; despite Cosell’s impact on pop culture, his prominent place in the power and prestige of network television or the incredible shadow his figure cast on a period of unparalleled on-air oligarchy, he failed to leave a legacy. Cosell, in the strangest of ways, was a one-off.
There is nothing or no one today that resembles a serious evolution of his style or substance—in the realm of sports or elsewhere. Maybe, if you’d stretch it, occasional ball-busting commentators or grand-standing blowhards, but none of them with an ounce of the self-effacing humor or hardcore passion for singular causes or mind-curving bombast as the original.
And this glaring omission unfurls with intriguing momentum in the first thoroughly researched and effectively framed biography of Cosell and his times, Mark Ribowsky’s Howard Cosell – The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports.
Beyond its poignant depiction of a flawed, paranoid and narcissistic character with the uncanny talent to immerse himself entirely, almost supernaturally, into emerging events, Ribowsky’s Howard Cosell makes crystal clear the entwined path of Cosell’s epic career within the world of Big Time sports and its broadcasting partners, as they quite literally created the monstrosities they are today.
“If you look at the lay of the land in the ‘50s when Cosell started out, there really was no industry called sportscasting,” Ribowksi told me recently. “It just wasn’t important. All you did was kowtow to the teams and their sponsors, until Howard Cosell changed all that.”
It was a change that according to Ribowski had to be fought by Cosell tooth and nail.
“He had three strikes against him from the beginning, his Jewishness, his Brooklyness, his abrasively unattractive voice, but he was relentless and uncompromising and lasted long enough to match the times. People were looking for this anti-hero in the emerging counter-culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he had to get there first.”
Howard Cosell is a riveting journey of personal upheaval and challenges for Cosell and his times, but mostly the burgeoning art form he created, from his steadfast defense and promotion of lifelong friend, Muhammad Ali, and his making and breaking of the fight game, to the emergence, almost mainly due to his talents and the vision of Roone Arledge, ABC and the iconic Monday Night Football, of sports as showbiz, all the way through the defining moments of broadcast journalism.
“Cosell is the one who merged entertainment and sport, and there’s a great irony to that,” Ribowski says. “It had never been done like that before, but today it’s almost completely eclipsed by entertainment. There’s no journalism left. Journalism was the important underpinning of what Cosell was creating, but now there’s almost nothing of importance going on.”
Ribowski echoes in Howard Cosell much of what the man brought to his craft, a sense that he would always take a stand based on principle even if it was guided by emotion. It was something I had not considered with Cosell until this book. What made him a hero and mentor to me was his detached sense of a story, to take from it the clearly absurd notions and deconstruct it coldly and rationally, as Cosell did brilliantly in covering Ali’s battles with the U.S. government over his draft status.
“The thing that you can always say about Cosell, and it applies in most cases for his work, is simply two words: He cared,” Ribowski cites. “He cared about what he did, he cared about the people he spoke about, he cared about the issues that he elucidated, he cared how the public would perceive them; he just cared.”
However, the godfather of sports journalism at the top of his game in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s would soon develop a dark side in which Ribowski argues turned a stellar career into one of parody.
“Cosell lost that aspect of the whole thing with Monday Night Football,” the author states. “It was both great and horrible for his delicate pathology, both soothing his ego but also challenging it with all the criticism he had to endure, the death threats and personal attacks in the press, which ruined him.”
Howard Cosell is an even-handed appraisal of Cosell’s mammoth influence on and contribution to broadcast journalism—Ribowski agrees with Cosell’s own gaudy estimation that he was along with Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson among the pop culture media icons of that era—but it also paints a picture of a sometimes petty, often jealous and wildly paranoid jock-sniffer, who was from the start an obsessive collector of celebrities and newsmakers for self-promotion. His enigma, some may argue hypocrisy, dealing with the ever-evolving social debates on race, religion, law and culture are many and varied, which make Cosell one of the most complex and fascinating subjects to cover.
This brings to mind why no one dared touch his life for a telling before.
Perhaps it was Cosell’s final years spent penning vicious barbs in books that built upon the myths of his image and burned every bridge that had ferried him to fame and fortune, from the NFL to ABC to colleagues and confidants. Maybe it was the reluctance of his immediate family to contribute to the book; although Ribowski admits some have enjoyed the results and now wish they had relented. Then there is also a generation of sports writers who recall Cosell as more pop culture caricature than significant pioneer.
None of this stopped Mark Ribowski from giving us a much-needed glimpse into our media history and an American success story like no other, one long in coming. At the close of our conversation the author was adamant; “To do all Cosell did at his age, tear down as many barriers as he did, is like a fable. What a change this man was responsible for, and it’s a great tragedy that he took that change to the grave. He deserved a permanent rendering in society. Where we deserve to have a lot of Howard Cosells around, unfortunately there was only one.”
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus and Midnight For Cinderella.