For all of Howard Cosell's excesses -- he's arrogant, pompous, bombastic, vain, intolerant, self-indulgent, loud, abrasive, condescending, impatient, tempestuous, verbose, egotistical -- he remains network sports' sole watchdog of the harsh realities beyond the playing fields.
For the past generation, Cosell has shadowed, sometimes overshadowed, the American sports scene for ABC. As a broadcast journalist, he has had no equal in sports. While most easily linked to Muhammad Ali, boxing and "Monday Night Football," Cosell's indelible mark on the sports landscape has been established by his singular pursuit of truth in controversial areas ignored by his peers.
He has been right and he has been wrong. Most importantly, he often has brought messages, uttered in his self-styled staccato delivery, that demanded attention if also disturbed much of his audience. He was, at once, the nation's most recognized and most disliked sportscaster.
Now, at age 67, Cosell slowly is stepping back. He quit doing professional boxing in December 1982. He retired from "Monday Night Football" telecasts before the 1984 season. Aside from doing two Triple Crown races, Tournament of Champions tennis and some major league baseball, Cosell's commitments to the network this year are reduced to his weekly "SportsBeat" show and to daily sportscasts for ABC Radio.
He is simultaneously reflective and resentful; thoughtfully continuing his coverage of topical issues no one else in the business will handle, bitterly denouncing those critics who keep chipping away at a reputation that they believe is largely a creation of his mind.
Cosell senses his mortality more than ever, but he's not willing yet to give up the forum -- television -- that has breathed life into him for 20 years.
"I don't even think about retiring. It doesn't matter to me. All that matters to me in my life is my wife's health and my health, the health of my two girls and four grandchildren. That's all. That's primary in my life."
Then he adds matter-of-factly in that familiar nasal cadence, "My place in the history of the industry is obviously secured."
Cosell, in fact, gladly will detail his proper place. "Who have been the largest figures in American television?" he asks. "In news, Walter Cronkite. In entertainment, Johnny Carson. And in sports, Howard Cosell."
As elder statesman in an industry that often does not want to hear him, Cosell remains unpopular with many of his broadcasting colleagues.
"Howard thinks sometimes that he's the only serious person in sports television," CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger said.
Cosell, more than ever, preaches against the jocko-cracy -- athletes-turned-analysts providing a rosy view of their sports -- and SportsWorld, a term he borrows from author Robert Lipsyte.
"My medium, with its overcorruption, knew the sole way to go was to create the jockocracy," Cosell said during a recent interview in his ABC office. "We're not positioned in this industry to provide truth anyway. (NFL) Commissioner Pete Rozelle has exactly what he wants . . . what he wants is a jock who has ties to the league and a redundant plethora of cliches. They're not journalists or communicators; they're not trained."
At one point, Cosell broke into song. "You've got the pick and roll, cha cha cha, the give and go, and what does it all mean?" he warbled.
On SportsWorld, Cosell said, "I realize full well that going back to the '20s . . . people in America were taught by Heywood Broun, Grantland Rice, Bob Considine what a great man and great role model Babe Ruth was . . . and Bill Tilden. They were taught hogwash.
"And it's ingrained in the American people ever since that there exists a special world that is pure and a necessary Camelot in the daily travail of human life -- SportsWorld. It's absurd."
Lipsyte defined SportsWorld as a set of "values, with their implicit definitions of manhood, courage, and success, . . . (that) create a dangerous and grotesque web of ethics and attitudes, an amorphous infrastructure that acts to contain our energies, divert our passions, and socialize us for work or war or depression."
Cosell's sports world nowadays revolves around "SportsBeat," his weekly 30-minute dissection of SportsWorld values. It is a show that constantly seems on the brink of cancellation because one-third to one-half of ABC's affiliates don't air it any given Sunday. (Here in Washington, it's preempted from its 12:30 p.m. slot by "It's Your Business" and shown infrequently on taped delay.)
"It's the only show really at this stage of my life that I'm interested in. And if that show would go by the wayside, Western civilization would not crumble." Pause. "Nor would Howard Cosell."
Since it began in 1981, "SportsBeat" has practiced sports journalism in a manner the other networks mostly ignore. CBS and NBC, on occasion, do pieces when timely issues intrude upon the sports they cover, but it's almost as if they feel a reluctant obligation to do even that. Cosell acts as if he has a moral imperative to do as much as he can.
Cosell, and no one else in sports television, has stayed abreast of labor unrest, drug problems, antitrust legislation in Congress, NBA franchise problems, the Olympic movement, the Al Davis-NFL court case and so on.
"When it comes to hard-core issues, we really have no competition on television. No one is going to do eminent domain," said Peter Bonventre, an associate producer of the show. "There's no doubt that most sports fans want to watch an event. Most do not want to know about the issues we cover. It's rough, but that's why we are what we are.
"I don't believe there will ever be another show like this. If this show goes off, the industry will say, 'If Howard Cosell can't make a show like that go, how will anyone make it go?' "
"Nobody else could do this show," Cosell said. "That's not ego, that's plain truth."
The plain truth, however, is that time might be running out on "SportsBeat."
"The issue isn't what most people do. The issue is whether it serves the public. The only problem with 'SportsBeat' in terms of ratings is clearances," Cosell said. "When 'SportsBeat' was on three years ago on Sundays at 5:30, it consistently killed the opposition. The solution would be where we were originally. But we can't get the time back."
"Howard's correct. In certain other time periods, the show might do better," said Jim Spence, senior vice president for ABC Sports. "But you can't look at 'SportsBeat' in a vacuum. There is a relatively limited audience for this type of programming. We have not set a timetable regarding improvement of its clearances."
Cosell as journalist always has been more enduring and endearing than Cosell as game analyst. His boxing play-by-play remains memorable, but his "Monday Night Football" intonations drove many viewers to turn the sound down and his "Monday Night Baseball" work reinforces his lack of insight to the sport.
Part newsman, part entertainer, he seemingly has walked a fine line in a complex business. Perhaps it was Lipsyte who personified Cosell most accurately. In his 1975 book, "SportsWorld," 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."
In particular, Lipsyte referred to ABC's ludicrous "George Foreman vs. Five Opponents Boxing Show" in Toronto a decade ago. Cosell, part of the promotional blitz, chided it as a "charade" afterward.
It was vintage Cosell, managing to act as shill and showman as well as critic and crusader.
"What would you do?" Cosell said angrily. "I was under contract and I had to fulfill that contract or else breach it. I did it, and I told the truth about what it descended into with Roone Arledge sitting next to me.
"I also have a loyalty to my company. If I didn't, what would I be?"
Cosell's loyalty was tested in December 1982, when, after calling Larry Holmes' heavyweight title defense against Randall (Tex) Cobb, he decided not to work any more professional fights. Subsequently, he lobbied to ban boxing.
"I did, finally, in my disgust with boxing and what it's become, breach my contract. I can't stop my company; they have every right as a matter of law to carry boxing.
"I could not continue, in that terrible month three years ago, as I watched that crowd screaming, 'C'mon, Randy, show them how you can take it, you're our hero,' and this pitiful man is being beat up. It was terrifying. I made up my mind during that fight, 'Never again.'
"And that was the same month as (Alexis) Arguello lay there on the floor, the same month the pitiful (Ray) Mancini had killed the kid from Korea. And I just had it, and I wouldn't have it anymore."
Yet, Cosell, in another apparent case of having his cake and eating it, too, continued to work amateur fights through the 1984 Summer Olympics. It was, perhaps, a matter of professional convenience for him. After all, the amateur ranks feed the professional system, and it seemed dubious he could condone one and condemn the other.
"I can no longer do that," Cosell admitted, saying he is through with amateur boxing. "I did my last schtick at the Olympics."
Cosell's antiboxing stance fuels his vitriolic tongue. In fact, at this latter stage of his life, Cosell, perhaps more than ever, wants the preacher's pulpit from which to remonstrate.
"Let your brothers be of that low level of boxing and let the three networks, mine included, engage in their whatever it is they do," he said, gathering up patented Cosellian indignity. "Let them put up the money for fights. Let them be caught up in SportsWorld, with baseball, with the NFL, with the NBA and so on. But not me. Not Howard, baby."
"Cosell is a walking contradiction," said NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "The true journalism Cosell has done comprises about 5 to 10 percent of all the time he's been on the air. But you can take all the serious journalism work he's done and it will more than equal all the sports journalism done at the network level combined.
"And yet he's been involved in so much trash. If you made a list of the 10 best things ever on sports television and the 10 worst ever, Cosell would appear prominently on both lists."
Over the years, Cosell's work, indeed, has varied from the classical to the comical, from the socially significant to the shallow schlock his industry often demands.
He's almost through with it. He tells anyone who will listen that they should be through with it. For years, Cosell has lectured to younger folks in the business to get out, to find something more worthwhile than television to pursue.
And as usual with Cosell, the words of wisdom have both a ring of truth and a hollow sound. Why hadn't he jumped from the corrupt podium of power earlier? How could he remain so long in a business he routinely condemned?
The answers to these and other crucial questions about SportsWorld, he says, will be contained in his new book, written with Bonventre, called "I Never Played The Game." Once again, Cosell is packaging a product for us, and once again, we'll probably make it for showtime.
"On balance, I'm one of the luckiest men on earth," he said. "The only thing I never achieved in broadcasting was to be in the area that I wanted to be in, which is news. It's too late now. I think I might have made a good news anchor."
Nearing the end of the second of two long interviews, Cosell stated his case one more time.
"I (am) 67 years of age. I hope and pray I will live long enough to see all my grandchildren in college. I have no guarantee. That's all I want out of life. I have nothing more to do.
"I never sought fame. I never sought celebrity status. It came to me because of the puerile field I was in, where I was different, where I had opinions and could state them and backed it up with an abundance of background and knowledge and the trust and respect of everybody who mattered in the field I was in.
"So I became a celebrity who also happened to be a multi-faceted person with lots of talent."