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Cosell Was Almost Unique
There is a rigorous filter that limits who broadcasts on television, particularly in sports: mostly white men or equally well scrubbed white women, most of whom look and sound alike, and say the same things. One listens with little expectation of hearing anything beyond Muzak prose: description and analysis that never surprises.
So how to explain Howard Cosell, the subject of Mark Ribowsky’s engaging book, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports? Cosell wore a toupée, had an accent and appearance that emphatically confirmed his New York Jewish roots, used a vocabulary that departed from the television norm — and from most norms of educated discourse for that matter — and he waved around an NYU law degree. Let’s not forget an abrasive personality born of deeply felt insecurities.
And yet, in his time, he was the most discussed and recognized sports commentator on TV.
As Ribowsky lays it out, Cosell had two special characteristics that allowed him to overcome “defects” that otherwise would have kept him off the air: a fine mind supported by hard work that gave him opinions that mattered to listeners, and an honesty and directness that, though far from perfect, were appreciated even by people who one might think of as his polar opposite, like Muhammad Ali — whose cause he championed when such a stance was far from fashionable. Ribowski describes Ali and Cosell driving together for three hours in the back streets of Louisville, with the pair ending up at a pool hall, where they chatted with the patrons. Ali wanted Cosell to get to know the brothers. Cosell, on his side, was the first national broadcaster to cease using the name Cassius Clay, calling Ali by his Black Muslim name almost as soon as he adopted it.
Throughout his career Cosell supported causes large and small: he denounced certain fights as fixed; he took up Curt Flood’s position that ball players should not be tied to teams via the reserve clause; he even described certain Monday Night Football games as “dull” while on the air. Listeners felt either informed or outraged; they adored or despised him. But they were never bored. Both groups listened to Cosell for a single reason: they were interested to hear what he was going to say next. Not a bad epitaph for a man with opinions.
Addendum: Perhaps it is true that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. There is space for individuality and intelligence in broadcasting, but you have to be talented enough to break through the aforementioned cultural filter. Up in Canada, hockey commentator Don Cherry dresses like, well, I don’t know what, but he says true things that nobody else can or will say. Howard Stern, a kind of creature, might shock with schlock, but there is a mind of a kind at work there. And shambling, disheveled Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear (and various history commentaries) lifts that show to a different intellectual level, which goes a long way to explaining its international popularity.
Quality will out, at least on occasion.
October 18, 2009
When Love Beckoned in 52nd Street
We were at San Francisco’s BIX last evening, enjoying prosecco, cheese, and a bit of music. A full year of inhabitation in Northern California has unraveled to me no decent venue for proper lounging, but…
October 9, 2009
D Afraid of a Little Competish
So our colleague and Dartblog writer Joe Asch informed me that the D has rejected our cunning advertising campaign. Uh-oh. The Dartmouth is widely known as a breeding ground for instant New York Times successes,…
September 4, 2009
How Regents Should Reign
As Dartmouth alumni proceed through the legal hoops necessary to defuse a Board-packing plan—which put in unhappy desuetude an historic 1891 Agreement between alumni and the College guaranteeing a half-democratically-elected Board of Trustees—it strikes one…
August 29, 2009
Election Reform Study Committee
If you are an alum of the College on the Hill, you may have received a number of e-mails of late beseeching your input for a new arm of the College’s Alumni Control Apparatus called…
August 23, 2009
Fare Thee Well, Tom Crady
And now Dean Tom Crady has precipitously announced his departure from the College after only 20 months on the job. How to read this? By way of background, prior to coming to Dartmouth, Crady had…
May 31, 2009
Kangaroo Court, Indeed
In an interview with The Dartmouth, alumni-elected trustee T.J. Rodgers ‘70 explained his reasons for declining to participate in future evaluations of trustees up for “re-election,” namely the “kangaroo court” nature of such discussion in…