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Cosell Was Almost Unique

Cosell Book and Pic1.jpgThere 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.

Cosell Gang.jpg

Quality will out, at least on occasion.

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