A social history of 20th century America through the life of a sports broadcaster
Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
Howard Cosell was a gadfly who flitted across the American cultural scene, predominantly in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a sports broadcaster who worked his trade at a tumultuous time in American history. His era was one of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the rise and assertiveness of African American athletes as personified by Muhammad Ali, and the emergence of player unions. Cosell was a constant critic of the establishment forces which controlled sport. After this period, Cosell’s role changed from being a critic to being more of an ‘entertainer’ or celebrity and, following his retirement, he quickly slipped out of the public gaze.
Mark Ribowsky maintains that Cosell played a pivotal role in taking unpopular positions and championing the role of underdogs in this tumultuous period of American history. He says, “The main reason I decided to undertake this work was to fill a vacuum that has existed for the last two decades since his final, and surprisingly quiet, exit from the stage.” In his account of Howard Cosell’s life, Ribowsky provides a roller coaster ride of many of the major broader social and sporting events which occurred in the latter decades of the 20th century, especially with respect to boxing and the career of Muhammad Ali; the Olympic Games of 1968 and the tragic killing of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972; changes in sports broadcasting and the rise of the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) under the leadership of Roone Arledge; bureaucratic infighting within ABC and the toxic relationships and jockeying for positions in the sun that existed between sports’ commentators, in both print and electronic forms of the media. To his credit, Ribowsky does not resile from reporting on the ugly or nasty aspects of Cosell’s persona.
Howard William Cohen was born on 25 March 1918. As his name suggests, his parents were Jewish; in fact, his maternal grandfather was a Rabbi. From an early age Cosell announced, to those prepared to listen, that he wanted to be the most famous name in broadcasting. He experienced anti-Semitism as a child living in Brooklyn. This may suggest that this was the reason why he changed his name to Cosell.
Cosell never seems to have come to terms with his Jewish heritage. His father lost whatever interest he had in Judaism and Cosell did not have a Bar Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony experienced by Jewish boys when they turn 13. While Cosell made donations to Jewish charities, he married out, a Presbyterian for love in what was a happy and supportive marriage; did not bring up his two daughters in any religion; prayed with a Catholic Cardinal on his death bed and stipulated in his will that his funeral be held at a Methodist Church. Irrespective of this strange dance with his heritage, there was a more compelling personal reason why he wanted to move on from his past.
Cosell’s teenage years and education occurred in the Depression of the 1930s. This necessitated his father being on the road for most of the year in attempting to make ends meet. His mother became lonely and formed friendships with other men, which resulted in vicious fights on his father’s return; fights which Cosell heard behind the wafer-thin walls of the tenements they lived in. Cosell placed the blame for these dark moments on his father.
His father wanted him to do well at school. Study and the obtaining of high grades was something that Cosell did by himself. He reached the conclusion that he, and he alone was responsible for his success. To the extent that he experienced failures, frustrations or lack of recognition he would put it down to external factors, such as anti-Semitism or opponents being motivated by jealousy and envy. With time he morphed into a narcissistic prima donna, incapable of self-analysis or criticism.
Cosell needed to be told again and again how good or brilliant he was. He was forever envious and jealous of those that he worked with, was never-ending in his harassment of ABC executives to enhance his own position or downgrade those that he worked with, drove away friends with his continual bragging and celebrated setbacks of his opponents. He even said that the death of a long-time rival journalist was one of the happiest days of his life. His bragging and big-noting of himself was a device he used to overcome his inner conflict and insecurities. He lacked any sense of noblesse oblige. While he had a successful marriage, he was a man who never seems to have been happy. With the passing years he became increasingly isolated and alienated as contemporaries wanted to keep away from this obnoxious man with his big mouth who could never stop speaking about himself and criticising others.
Cosell’s major claim to fame was how he spoke up for various athletes, the majority of whom were African-Americans, who experienced problems with the powers that be in their respective sports. He supported Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s colour bar, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salutes at the 1968 Mexican Olympics and Curt Flood’s Supreme Court challenge, in the early 1970s, to baseball’s reserve system (where players, once they signed with a club were bound to that club for the rest of their playing life). Undoubtedly, the best example of Cosell’s courage and fearlessness was his defence of the constitutional rights of Muhammad Ali when he refused to be conscripted to participate in the Vietnam War, on religious grounds, following his conversion to Islam.
Ribowsky makes much play of the relationship between Cosell and Ali, implying that they were equal partners or that Cosell performed a major role in enhancing Ali’s fame and image. While Cosell spoke fearlessly about Ali’s rights and both seemed to enjoy verbal spars in interviews, it is difficult to see how the activities of Cosell played any meaningful role in the phenomenon that was Muhammad Ali. Cosell did not mount Ali’s legal challenges, did not fight his fights, and did not script his words or the twists and turns of his life. Cosell was a commentator, an observer on the periphery of where the action was. Moreover, this is the first serious study of Cosell and it is doubtful if there will be another; while there are countless biographies and commentaries on Ali, the talented boxer who became an icon in his one-man challenge to American racism.
Ribowsky maintains that Cosell was a “complicated man”. The evidence he has marshalled, however, demonstrates the opposite. He was a prima donna, shot through with insecurities and self-doubt. He sought to overcome such insecurities by tearing down imagined and real opponents and by telling everyone how brilliant he was. Despite this criticism, Ribowsky has provided an excellent account of the times of Howard Cosell, those dramatic moments when sport was unable to insulate itself from broader social changes.