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Books | Media | Sports

January 3, 2012

The Brilliance and Bombast of Howard Cosell

Mark Ribowsky, Cosell's biographer, misses the no-holds-barred, full-bore approach that made Cosell a star in a staid sports world.

Andrew Golding

One of the most transcendent sports figures of the 20th century never hit a home run, never made a basket, and never threw a touchdown. Sure, he had his share of sparring sessions and knockout blows, but the legendary Howard Cosell rattled the sports world with his words, not his fists. Cosell was quick to analyze and criticize, a rarity among many other sports journalists at the time who preferred to gratify and satisfy. For decades, he was the dominant voice of Monday Night Football, the World Series, the Olympics, and many big boxing events, including several Muhammad Ali fights. New York Mets manager Ralph Houk once told Cosell, "You're like shit, you're everywhere."

Mark Ribowsky. Photo by Robin Fertig.
"Howard feuded with basically everyone who ever held a microphone."

Mark Ribowsky. Photo by Robin Fertig.

Cosell was a genuine celebrity at these events, not a mere supplement to the action. A TV Guide poll in the 1970s found him to be the most-liked sportscaster on TV, as well as the most-disliked. He received several death threats and had bodyguards for his own protection at the games he worked. He was a controversial figure, pandered to no one, feuded with everyone, and had no shortage of ego. He was proud of "telling it like it is," as he said, and railed against the "jockocracy"—the integration of athletes into the broadcast booth. "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these," Cosell said. "Of course, I am."

Cosell existed in a different media landscape, one without cable television and the internet, and with easy access to players. He was instrumental in shaping stories, best exemplified by his support of Ali's refusal to serve in the US Army during the Vietnam War for religious reasons; few others supported Ali at the time. As Mark Ribowsky demonstrates in his new book, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, Cosell was a figure with no peer and no worthy successor. "We can call his time the Age of Cosell, so total was his saturation of American sports and popular culture," Ribowsky writes.

In the following interview, conducted via phone just before Christmas Day and edited for length and clarity, Ribowsky tells Gelf why Cosell was unique, discusses the one true love in the man's life, and says he's glad he never met his famous subject.

Gelf Magazine: I put together a list of the people Cosell feuded with, and it's over 20. Was it Cosell's insecurity that fueled these feuds? How it is possible to get into confrontations with so many people?

Mark Ribowsky: I would have thought the number would be a lot higher than that! Howard feuded with basically everyone who ever held a microphone. He had to make enemies as that was part of his pathology in order to drive himself to what he thought he should be. I don't know if there is a single person in broadcasting whom he was ever favorable to, ever friendly with, ever allies with. He lived for enemies and had a self-fulfilling prophecy of making everybody hate him. The result was that when he hit his descent later in his career, there was nobody there to stand by him or with him. He set that up early in his career when he feuded with the print media in New York. He didn't have to; he didn't need to make an enemy of Dick Young or all those guys—but that was just Howard.

Gelf Magazine: In 2005, ESPN's chief programmer compared Stephen A. Smith to Cosell. Do you think that's accurate? Who reminds you of Cosell today in "telling it like it is?"

Mark Ribowsky: Stephen A. Smith is similar to Cosell? Whoever said that should be shot. He's a newspaper guy with a big mouth. Howard had a big mouth. Howard was blustery, he was obnoxious, he was loud, he was a sexist, but he was also singular—there was nobody else like him. Now there's nobody who is unique—they're all basically loud while Howard was basically brilliant. He was an intellectual—he had a law degree. He knew how to frame things in legal terms, how to get to the pith of an issue. These guys today are screaming heads.

Gelf Magazine: How about Bob Costas?

Mark Ribowsky: Costas is a pro, which is an endangered species in sports journalism. It includes Costas, Bob Ley, maybe Bryant Gumbel, even though he's more a huckster than a real journalist. And anybody who employs Bernie Goldberg automatically lacks credibility—the guy sees conspiracies all over the place. Costas will do his research and get to the bottom of an issue, but is a far cry from Howard. Costas is a guy who looks for common ground, a can't-we-all-get-along kind of thing, whereas Howard would come in with all guns blazing: You must see it my way or you're wrong. Poor Stan Wright from the 1972 Olympics, Howard was the only guy who could have created sympathy for that guy, but he had to do it his way. He had to bore in on the guy and never let up, and that's what people don't do nowadays. They ask one good question, maybe, then look at the script. Howard never had a script in anything he ever did because it was all from his head. When he died, he took that form with him, and that's the sad part for me.

Gelf Magazine: If Howard were alive today, what would you ask him?

Mark Ribowsky: Why the sportscasting landscape is the same now as it was when he came up in 1955? Why are there so many Ken dolls? Why is the jockocracy in control? Why did people not take your lead with an edge toward journalism and the real world rather than the artificial world of sports? And I'd know what he'd say—he'd say that he was the only one daring and brave enough to do it. And he'd probably be right. The subtitle of the book is the "Transformation of American Sports." That's not really accurate: He transformed sports, but he transformed them for himself. He didn't really transform it as an industry; he did, but in a way that he wouldn't like recognition for, which is making it indivisible with entertainment, which is what he did with Monday Night Football. Now it's like completely entertainment without the journalist element, and I think he'd be aghast at what he sees. That's the irony and tragedy of Howard.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote about the jockocracy in sports, a word Howard used often, and then about how Ali was Howard's "wife" professionally. That seems ironic to me.

Mark Ribowsky: Howard never refrained from criticizing Ali: There were times when the two were on the outs and had nasty things to say about each other. When Ali fought Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, Howard was merciless in saying, "That was a horrible fight—how could you even perpetuate a farce like this?" and that's what set Howard apart. Ali had a split with Howard several times during their relationship when Ali thought Howard was being too tough on him. Howard was like that—he would turn on you, on Joe Namath, turn on anybody. I don't think he was too close with Ali. He may have been too close with Floyd Patterson, which is a long-forgotten chapter now. He made excuses for Patterson's losses and that taught him a lesson: Don't make him a member of the family. Ali was never a member of the Cosell family the way Patterson had been. I wouldn't consider Cosell being in the tank for Ali, and they certainly weren't close personally because no one could get close to Ali due to the Nation of Islam, and because Ali's natural personality was shut off from most of the world.

Gelf Magazine: I want to talk about someone who was close with Howard, and that's his wife Emmy. She said that Howard was "satisfied only that he provided well for his family."

Mark Ribowsky: That was a great love story in the midst of all this bombast. Howard was totally devoted to Emmy, and Emmy was the only one who could ever control Howard, and with just a look of the eye or a few well-chosen words. It was the only love Howard ever found in his life, as he didn't have love growing up with his family. Howard said the only Emmy he ever needed was his wife. Do I think that's true? No, because he really wanted those Emmy Awards that went to Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. But Emmy was the great love of his life and someone few people knew about.

Gelf Magazine: I'm wondering what you thought of the John Podhoretz review of your book in the New York Post.

Mark Ribowsky: Podhoretz said my book read like I detested the guy, which is totally ridiculous. That's absolutely not true. I wouldn't have written the book if I thought he was a horrible human being. I mean, the man was magnificent, a great journalist when he didn't have to play the role of Howard. It takes someone special to break into the business at 40-something years old and succeed like that.
I'm glad I never met Howard and that I could come in as an outsider. I'm sure he would have pissed me off, upset me in some way. He always put down whoever asked him an illogical question, or any question at all if he were in a bad mood or drinking; that might have influenced me. When he was on top of his game, sportscasting and journalism had never seen anything like him. Howard was under no compunction to make others feel good—he courted bitterness. He turned off many people and made them enemies when he didn't have to. But can't these journalists like Mushnick at least give him a break for his work?

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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