Year-end compilations of bests and worsts recall a TV Guide poll of 1978 that determined the most disliked sportscaster in America was Howard Cosell and the most liked was Howard Cosell. So when Cosell asked out of his ABC contract a few days ago, completing a sputtering withdrawal from television at 67, it was an occasion of both joy and wistfulness, good news for the national eardrum but bad news for news.
Phenomenon, Cosell's most conservative description of himself, hardly begins to tell it. A homely Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn--the grand slam of network liabilities--achieved a celebrity so enormous and unlikely that he has only naturally mistaken it for love. Walking along the avenue now, stooped and trembling, Cosell is sung to by construction workers and cops who proffer rides in their patrol cars when cabs are scarce. Strangers cheer him. "Oh, what hatred," he sneers triumphantly, a sarcasm aimed at every detractor he has survived. "Look at the hatred dripping from their tongues."
The phenomenon opened, like a play in three acts, with breezy Jimmy Cannon lines: "If Howard Cosell were a sport, he'd be roller derby"; "Cosell put on a toupee and changed his name [from Cohen] to tell it like it is." Once, raging about the shortage of experts in sports journalism, Cosell forced Red Smith to commiserate with a twinkle, "There's one fewer than you think." Cosell certainly was a journalist, though first and foremost an attorney.
His historic alliance with Boxer Muhammad Ali, a boon to both of them, was rooted in constitutional law. Cosell knew that Muslim Ali stood on firm legal ground in conscientiously objecting to the draft. But he also felt Ali was right. Regarding race, Cosell's clear record should have forestalled that unfair flap over his "little monkey" remark on Monday Night Football two years ago. Applied to black Washington Receiver Alvin Garrett, it was obviously a term of fond familiarity on the order of Cosell's other peculiar references to Joey Theismann, Petey Rose or Danderoo. He is capable of alluding to a Pope as Johnny Paul.
In the second act, at the end of the '70s, the fun went out of hating him. It got ugly and even scary. The anti-Semitic joined forces with the anti-semantic. Denver bar patrons started chucking bricks through TV screens. One World Series night in Baltimore, Cosell was rocked in his limousine like a deposed general after the coup. He was the only sports figure one could actually imagine being assassinated, and the influence of newspapers was not exactly calming. With typical understatement, he estimates, "I have been vilified more than Charles Manson."
When the smoke abruptly cleared, it was hard to tell whether the fire first had gone out of Cosell or his public. He was still preposterous and pedantic but no longer passionate, and no longer did he arouse passion. First from boxing, then from football, he started withdrawing. Cosell became most comfortable at congressional hearings condemning the fact of boxing and on the Nightline show decrying the lionization of athletes. Savaging colleagues in his newly published megalomaniac's manifesto, he next took his leave from TV.