More than four years after his death, the sports world still hasn't decided whether it loved or hated Howard Cosell. And there may never be a consensus.

For most of the 36 years he was with ABC radio and television, Cosell was both the most-liked and most-disliked sportscaster on the air -- a brash, loud, know-it-all pontificator whose gross insecurities and ultrasensitivity were outmatched only by his wit, charm and intellect. He was respected even by many who loathed him.

He could be infinitely cruel, but did not consider himself cruel, says former ABC and NBC sports executive Don Ohlmeyer in the HBO Sports one-hour documentary, "Howard Cosell: Telling Like It Is," debuting Monday at 8 p.m.

He would consider his cruelties the tough love of "telling it like it is."

And therein lies the secret of Cosell's legend.

"He was the omniscient, all-knowing, all-seeing eye of the viewer," adds announcer Al Michaels, who worked with Cosell on ABC's "Monday Night Football" and "Monday Night Baseball." "He really carved out a role that had not existed in this business and I'm not sure exists to this day."

The complexities of Cosell and the world's love-hate relationship with him is the heart of this latest in HBO's "Sports in the 20th Century" series.

For all of the 1970s and most of the early '80s, Cosell's presence at a professional football or baseball game or at ringside for a championship fight meant it was a big event.

Cosell made "Monday Night Football" a success because most people tuned in to hear what outlandish thing he would say, and he never backed away from strong opinions on race, justice or simply sports.

He used to say, " `What's popular isn't always right and what's right isn't always popular," and if people didn't stand up for things, they weren't good for much else,' " says his daughter, Jill, who along with his other daughter, Hillary, are associate producers of the HBO program.

Cosell often feuded with other members of the media. He called sports writers "$10,000-a-year hacks," notes colleague Jim McKay.

But Cosell himself was so sensitive to criticism, Frank Gifford, his longtime partner on "MNF," said in an interview, that he used to say, "Look at this. Can you believe what they're saying about me in Ames, Iowa?"

HBO Sports executive producer Ross Greenburg, coordinating producer Kirby Bradley and producer Joe Lavine have done in this show what neither the public, the media nor Cosell's best friends or worst enemies could ever do with him: take the middle ground.

"Nobody was in the middle," says Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell. "Nobody."

"There were so many sides to him," Houston Chronicle sports columnist and Cosell biographer Mickey Herskowitz said by phone. "So many people say that what you saw on television was what you saw in private. That was true in effect. But he had a tremendous intellect that couldn't be measured by the meter."

Cosell, a successful union attorney before venturing into sports broadcasting, was the first journalist to call Muhammad Ali by his Muslim name on the air when everyone else insisted on using his given name of Cassius Clay.

When U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their black pride raised-fists salute on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics, they left the podium, walked past all other reporters and went straight to Cosell.

Among Cosell's other causes: Curt Flood's case for free agency in baseball and the lack of minority hiring in sports in the early 1970s.

All of which brings Cosell and the documentary to an incident remembered by many Washingtonians and pivotal in Cosell's career: In 1983, Cosell called Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett a "little monkey" as he starred in a Monday night game.

Cosell was lambasted as a racist and bigot for his choice of words, cries that his friends and family say hurt him more than any newspaper article in Ames, Iowa. After all, they point out, Cosell grew up a scared Jewish kid being chased by Irish-Catholic boys. And he was denied a sports job in the early days of ABC Sports because he was "too New York" -- code for too Jewish, says former ABC News correspondent Ed Silverman.

Cosell was many things, his enemies say in the show, but a racist was not one of them.

Despite Garrett's contention that he was not offended by the remark, the incident was the beginning of the end of Cosell's career. The documentary examines the issue with two telling pieces of footage: a testimony from Cosell's grandson and a clip of football player-turned-broadcaster Mike Adamle making a run in a 1972 NFL game.

Cosell refers to Adamle -- who is white -- as a "little monkey."

What we also learn about Cosell in the show -- and probably refused to accept based on our love or hate of him -- is that he was a talented broadcaster and a media trailblazer. His call of the famous George Foreman-Joe Frazier heavyweight title fight on HBO in 1973, in which he yells, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" might be one of the top five sports calls of all time.

"There were things he did that didn't make everybody love him all the time, but as a sportscaster who's been in the business for 20 years, I think every one of us owes him a debt of gratitude," said ESPN's Chris Berman, who four years ago took over Cosell's role of narrating the halftime highlights on "MNF."

Berman is actually doing a much-mimicked Cosell call when he describes a touchdown by saying, "He . . . could . . . go . . . all . . . the . . . way!"

"I'm trying in my own way to uphold the tradition and the standard he set with halftime highlights," Berman added in a phone interview. "He made everyone pay attention. He had a presence that very few in this business ever achieve."