Just shy of his 68th birthday, Howard Cosell is still speaking of sports. But nobody in Washington is listening, and therein lies another sad tale in the saga of ABC Sports' legend in exile.
When "SportsBeat," his critically acclaimed but widely ignored journal, went off the air in December, Cosell was through with ABC Television. In Washington and Baltimore, "SportsBeat" seldom was available, anyway, because the local ABC affiliates preempted it.
Now, as Cosell continues his twice-daily "Speaking of Sports" broadcasts for ABC Radio, Washington again turns a deaf ear. In the information capital of the world, the most significant sportscaster of his time is not heard. About 400 stations air Cosell, but the closest to Washington are WFVA in Fredericksburg, Va., and WCEM in Cambridge, Md.
It seems inexplicable that Cosell's voice is losing its reach. Is Cosell ticketed for a permanent sideline seat where he won't be seen or heard? Did America finally grow tired of The Ego That Ate Manhattan?
Granted, Cosell is the type of guy who could wear out his welcome before he came over to your house. Many people did turn down the sound in his final years on "Monday Night Football," and the waning months of "SportsBeat" produced ratings usually associated with test patterns.
But you might think that some media mogul -- Ted Turner with his superstation or Rupert Murdoch with his newly bought Metromedia stations -- would make Cosell an offer he couldn't refuse to give instant credibility to a sports operation.
Cosell's latest book, "I Never Played the Game," has been a best seller for nearly five months. His sources and influence virtually are unmatched in sports broadcasting. His views -- from the abolition of professional boxing to the greed of the National Football League -- remain provocative.
The most recognizable sportscaster of all time is available, yet the industry lines up for pro wrestling.
Perhaps the most logical choice for Cosell's network TV return would be CBS, where Peter Bonventre, a former "SportsBeat" producer and his coauthor, now works.
For his part, Cosell denies missing the medium that made him. But Cosell saying he's not interested in television seems as believable as a goldfish volunteering to live in a waterless bowl. "I wanted to quit in 1979, but I got talked out of it," he said from New York. "It's all garbage on the air. I have tremendous freedom to continue saying what I want [on radio]. I can't get that freedom [on network television]."
Can anyone get that freedom? "How? Anyone who thinks they can, it's just a joke . . . They don't want sports journalism. [CBS Sports executive] Neal Pilson was the honest one. He said, 'We're partners with [the sports we cover]. We do business with them.' It's a cop-out on his part, but at least he was honest."
Although he said, "I won't disclose any of my plans at this time," Cosell does want to stay on radio for a while.
"The reason I've stayed with radio is that somewhere in America, there has to be a voice of reason . . . There's got to be somebody out there telling the truth."
Beyond his self-serving sermons, Cosell continues to pursue stories unlike anyone else in the business. Of late, he again has been hitting hard at the NFL, including harsh criticism of the St. Louis Cardinals' lawsuit against the league. The suit claims that the NFL's bylaws on franchise shifts violate antitrust laws.
"I believe the suit is a sham," he said. "That suit is engineered by the league, together with Anheuser-Busch, to repressure [Missouri] Sens. [John] Danforth and [Thomas] Eagleton to get their bill [freeing the NFL to control franchise relocation] on the floor of the Senate. What [NFL Commissioner Pete] Rozelle is after is a sweeping antitrust exemption. That's what the NFL wants at any cost, then they'll establish a pay-television network for regular-season games.
"The NFL is, without question, the most powerful organization in the United States. They're on all three networks. Their control of the print medium is astounding . . . Take the Boston Globe, which had the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers, but for three weeks, they hold a stinking drug story about a stinking football team. Something's very wrong in this country."
And if you listen long enough to his patented rage attacking issues, you also realize there's something very wrong that when speaking of sports these days, Howard Cosell is no more than background noise for most people.