In Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, “Sleeper,” a time traveler watches a tape of Howard Cosell while a 22nd-century historian tries to explain its meaning. “We weren’t sure at first what to make of this,” he says, “but we developed a theory: We feel that when people committed great crimes against the state, they were forced to watch this.”
Allen could assume that most of his audience recognized the irritating loudmouth who helped create “Wide World of Sports” and “Monday Night Football” on ABC. As the moviemaker understood, the broadcaster also transcended athletics to become a celebrity, an entertainer, an actor playing a character named Howard Cosell. But his fame was based not on love but loathing, on animosity more than admiration. He received so many threats that armed guards followed him at games. As Mark Ribowsky recalls, “Millions wanted to yell at their screens for him to shut the hell up.”
The life of a saint this ain’t. Cosell contained “the world’s most inflated ego,” Ribowsky writes, and “there was nothing really loveable, or even much endearing, about him.” Beneath his obnoxious exterior beat the heart of obsidian. By the time ABC dumped him in 1985, “he had alienated just about everyone he’d ever known.”
Sportswriter Red Smith delivered perhaps the most damning judgment: “I’ve tried very hard to like Howard — and I’ve failed.”
So why is he worth a book? Because his life tells us something about our culture and ourselves.
Born Howard Cohen in 1918, Cosell maintained that the anti-Semitic slurs he suffered as a boy “create[d] insecurities in you that live forever.” When he was a young man, he changed his name, but he could never escape his ethnic identity, and as his daughter put it, “his whole life, Daddy felt like a poor Jewish boy.”
But his Jewishness was also a source of strength. It gave him the push and the perspective of an outsider. He first attracted notice as a defender of black men who shared his angle of alienation: Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier; Tommie Smith , the sprinter who raised a black power salute after his Olympic victory; and, above all, boxer Muhammad Ali, who was reviled for refusing to serve in the military during Vietnam. Cosell and Ali appeared so many times together on television, refining their comic shtick, that “they were, by all measures, a team.”
Cosell was clearly in the tradition of the great Yiddish humorists, the masters of the put-on and the put-down, lobbing matzoh balls at the established order. From Jack E. Leonard (Leonard Lebitsky) and Alan King (Irwin Kniberg) to Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) and Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), Jewish entertainers have wheedled and needled their way into the core of American culture. Dangerfield’s famous lament, “I don’t get no respect,” could have been chiseled on Cosell’s tombstone.
But he should get respect. The character he created was so outsize, so colorful, so controversial that he embodied the essence of television, where personality and conflict rule.
“He was the medium, personified,” wrote TV critic Ron Powers, and the person who really understood that was Roone Arledge, the brilliant impresario who created “Monday Night Football” and put Cosell in the broadcast booth. When the “hate-filled” invectives poured in, Arledge was thrilled. Ribowsky writes: “Asked by sportswriters if he was worried about the controversy . . . [Arledge] quoted himself, ‘Worried? That’s exactly what I’m looking for.’ ” Added Chet Forte, the longtime director of “Monday Night Football”: “It’s not a damn football game. It’s a show.”
And when Cosell later tried to play a different character, a genial variety-show host, he failed badly. The TV critic of the New York Times derided “the Horrible Howard monster [that] is now being marketed as the Cozy Cosell doll.”
Ribowsky spends too much space on boxing, a dying sport (Quick: Name one current champion) and on Cosell’s stupefying self-regard (We get it already — the guy was no mensch). But at his best, the author captures the arc of a gritty, even glorious, American life.
Yes, we all yelled “Shut the hell up” at Howard Cosell. But we seldom shut him off.
Roberts, who teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University, is the author of “From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America.”
The Man, The Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports
By Mark Ribowsky
477 pp. $29.95