Only Howard Cosell could summarize a man as complex and multifaceted as Howard Cosell: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." Cosell was also something else: "a transcendent figure in sports journalism." That sentence sounds like something Cosell would have said about himself but it actually appears as the subheading for William Nack's 1995 Howard Cosell obituary.
When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Cosell was the most famous and most controversial sports broadcaster in the world. He was often imitated--everyone tried to parody his distinctive delivery: "This is Howard Cosell, Speaking of Sports"--but never duplicated; nearly two decades after his passing, no national sports media figure has come close to matching Cosell's depth of knowledge or his passion for speaking truth to power about unpopular athletes and unpopular causes. Nack describes Cosell as "the gaudiest, smartest and most entertaining and unforgettable television
broadcaster in the history of sports--a superb reporter who worked
harder and asked better questions than anyone else who'd ever worn
Many people remember how Cosell's voice sounded but how many people remember what he stood for and what he said? Nack reminds anyone who may have forgotten just how outspoken Cosell was:
Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the
first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his
time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."
Few sportswriters and sportscasters are blessed to have the national platform that Cosell did and even fewer have used that platform as a force for good instead of just a means of self-aggrandizement. The prominent TV networks, magazines and websites that cover pro basketball have elevated many commentators and so-called experts to national prominence but who among those well-paid commentators and so-called experts lobbied for the Hall of Fame candidacies of forgotten ABA players like Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown? Ted Green struggled to get funding for his heartfelt Roger Brown documentary. ESPN's 30 for 30 series is outstanding but why did the network not want to touch the Roger Brown story? Might doing so have offended the NBA? Howard Cosell never cared who he offended; he just spoke the truth.
Cosell wrote and spoke eloquently and he did not shy away from controversy; no individual or organization has stepped up to fill the void created by Cosell's absence. Even Sports Illustrated, one of the few mainstream outlets where top notch sports journalism can still occasionally be found, often features forgettable, lazily constructed articles; the magazine sometimes includes first rate writing but one has to wade through a lot of chaff to find the wheat--and SI is better than any of its competitors. I will read anything written by the outstanding Gary Smith but his work only appears in print sporadically; during Cosell's prime, he was writing and/or talking on a daily basis, offering intelligent commentary about a wide range of subjects. Rick Reilly has the necessary writing chops to be a powerful influence--and he has penned some incredibly moving articles--but now he seems too comfortable cashing ESPN's checks to focus on producing a steady stream of great writing.
Cosell was far from perfect, as he noted in the self-assessment cited above. He often spoke bluntly (though truthfully) about the shortcomings of some of his co-workers. He drank a lot and could be unpleasant when he was inebriated; Nack begins his piece by recounting one such occasion, noting that Cosell's wife Emmy settled him down by declaring, "Howard, shut up! Nobody cares."
Cosell was too much of an original to leave heirs, and the landscape of
broadcast journalism that he left on Sunday looks much the way he found
it 35 years ago. Once again the waves are filled with talking heads and
apologists, with hometown cheerleaders and mindless drones. No one is
asking the questions that he asked. And Emmy was right--nobody cares.
Here is a 1991 ESPN special featuring Cosell being interviewed by Robert Lipsyte:
Howard Cosell: His Life and Times