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The Voice of Big-Time Sports

Joe Caneva/AP Images
Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, West Point, New York, August 7, 1972

Two years ago The Wall Street Journal calculated that in a typical National Football League game, the ball is live for only eleven minutes. The game clock runs for an hour, but most of that time is spent between plays; and the television broadcast of a game, which includes advertising and a halftime show, runs for a good three hours or more. If you think Americans might be impatient with being asked to commit that much of their time for eleven minutes of action, think again. Professional football is the most reliably popular form of television entertainment. During the season, half of a week’s ten top-rated shows are often either professional football games or football-related spinoff programming, like pregame shows and omnibus reviews of a week’s games.

You might think that sports journalism ought to be for fans who didn’t attend a game and want to know what happened. Broadcast sports journalism originated on the radio, and was meant to confer a feeling of being there to people who weren’t. But it has been clear for a long time that an additional function of sports journalism—today, the prime function—is to create a setting, not to report on results. American social masculinity now makes its primary home in the conversational bonhomie that surrounds sports. This kind of talk originates in sports journalism and then spreads to bars, parties, airport lounges, and dinner tables. Newspapers have had sports columnists, whose primary job isn’t to give results and who typically are their employers’ most popular and valuable staff members, for eons. Radio sports announcers more directly “call” games in progress, but the best ones learn how to develop an intense bond with the public; remember that Ronald Reagan’s early professional training came from announcing baseball games on the radio in Iowa.

On television, sports fans can see the game, but announcers are an essential part of the experience. Somebody has to fill all that time between plays, explain what’s going on (it goes by awfully quickly), give background information about the players, coaches, and competitors’ games, and, most important, offer up emotional guidance and surrogacy. By long-established genre convention, announcers of televised sports usually come in pairs—one member more phlegmatic, to do the play-by-play, and one more florid, to provide the color commentary. The play-by-play man tells you what just happened, and the color man offers up feelings; your own reaction and that of your friends, gathered in front of the screen, are cued and shaped by the intricate interplay of their reactions.

Important as they are in mediating and intensifying the relationship with the audience, sports announcers are in an odd position. The top announcers are hugely, and durably, popular, but only as connecting figures between the players and the fans. With a few very rare exceptions like Reagan—or more recently Keith Olbermann, who made a successful transition from sports to political commentary—they cannot survive outside of their symbiotic relationship with the athletes they are covering. Successful announcers are actually in a superior position to almost all athletes, who have very brief and brutal careers, but it’s part of their job to make themselves appear secondary.

Howard Cosell, of ABC, who died in 1995, was the most famous television sports announcer ever. He was a star for three decades, and during his early-1970s heyday, which coincided with the maximum reach of network television, he was a ubiquitous figure in American culture. He performed cameos as himself in two Woody Allen movies and in two episodes of the sitcom version of The Odd Couple. He couldn’t walk down the street anywhere in the country without drawing a crowd. No self-respecting comedian could fail to have a Cosell impression in his repertory. He frequently testified before congressional committees, and mused for years about running for the United States Senate from New York. He published several volumes of memoirs. There was a small secondary industry in other sports announcers and columnists’ never-ending debates about Cosell, and the debates went beyond the confines of the sports world. Michael J. Arlen, in The New Yorker, and Benjamin DeMott, in The Atlantic Monthly, wrote essays about Cosell’s cultural meaning.

In case you missed all this, the first thing you need to know about Cosell is that he was not the sports announcer type. Cosell mainly worked as a color man, and most of them are former athletes, bluffly amiable. Cosell was an ex-lawyer, tall, not handsome, who delivered generous helpings of verbose, stagy erudition in the accents of his Brooklyn Jewish youth and the mannered, uncool cadences of a 1930s radio announcer. Cosell’s boss, Roone Arledge, caught his peculiar mode of speaking pretty well in this quote, which comes from Arledge’s memoirs: “From the desperation of your tone, the bon vivant who is Roone Pinckney Arledge is beseeching me to rescue the trifle he’s devised for Monday evenings. Am I not correct?” Another part of Cosell’s persona was that he could be tough and confrontational. On a medium built for comfort, Cosell played the part of an ostentatiously candid, crusading liberal truth-teller.

Cosell’s fame was of an especially fleeting kind. He is much less remembered today than are the best of the athletes he covered, though their careers were far shorter than his. (Most of his work is gone forever, because ABC destroyed its videotape library in the late 1970s.) That’s fair—life inside the broadcast booth is inherently less interesting than life on the playing field—but it makes being his biographer difficult. Mark Ribowsky, a veteran sports and entertainment journalist, has to work very hard to persuade us that Cosell deserves to be the subject of a long biography. In the introduction alone, he calls Cosell a “transformational figure,” an “outlaw,” and an artist, and refers to his heyday as “the Age of Cosell.” Because he can only attack after having previously built up (otherwise why bother?), his book seesaws between exaggerated praise for Cosell and exaggerated disillusionment over Cosell’s failing to be the great man Ribowsky has previously tried to persuade us he was. Sentence by sentence, Ribowsky’s unrelenting, hard-sell approach regularly produces clunkers like this:

But if Ali won few points for originality as a phoenix rising, he clearly had more than a few miles left on him—several of which were logged a bare three weeks later on December 7 when he took on another beautiful bum, Argentinian Oscar Bonavena, in the prime-time venue of Madison Square Garden, New York being still the only state to officially reinstate his license (the Quarry bout having been a one-off deal).

Or this:

Because [Frank] Gifford was joined at the hip with [Don] Meredith, and laid down a soothing, low-key groove in general—and treated Cosell with a compliant respect that sometimes parted for a verbal pinprick that was not appreciated—his arrival made for a nuanced shift texturally and, significantly only to Cosell, a shift in the axis of power in the booth from two career announcers to two ex-jocks.

But Ribowsky isn’t wrong in thinking that somewhere in the interplay among Cosell’s life story, the stories he covered, and the institutional rise of televised sports lies significant material about American culture. Born in 1918 to children of immigrants from Russia who had made their way to the middle class, raised on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Cosell seems to have been fascinated with sports announcing from early childhood. He was an excellent student who followed the approved upward and assimilationist trajectory for men of his generation and subculture: law school, military service, marriage, family, a move to the suburbs. But he couldn’t rid himself of the sports bug. His legal practice, at a small firm, included athletes and other clients connected with sports; one of these was the Little League in Brooklyn, and that association led to his first announcing assignment, on ABC radio in the summer of 1953, of a program about Little League baseball.

Cosell was unremittingly energetic and persistent, and he managed to parlay this small-time entrée into other, more significant jobs. Within a few years he had left his law practice and was working full-time for ABC Sports. Cosell, the unlikely announcer, and ABC, the underdog television network (it was created in the 1940s by the Federal Communications Commission’s pressure on NBC to divest itself of one of its two radio networks), rose in tandem.

Cosell became a star by covering a bigger star, Muhammad Ali, the great heavyweight boxer. Even before he encountered Ali, Cosell had established himself as a boxing announcer—in particular, as a champion of black boxers. Ali was unusual not just as an athlete but also as an unforgettable and irresistible public figure. His heyday coincided with the apotheosis first of the civil rights movement and then of the Black Power movement. Ali was not an exemplary, dignified black pioneer like Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson. He was brilliant, gorgeous, showy, and political. When he joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam in 1964, then changed his name from Cassius Clay, and then refused an induction notice from the United States Army on religious grounds, the sportswriting establishment, led by Cosell’s arch-enemy, Dick Young of the New York Daily News, was horrified—but Cosell was supportive. He was one of the first sports journalists to call Ali by his new name, and, more important, during Ali’s three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing because of his draft resistance, Cosell was one of the only sports journalists to remain loyal, sympathetic, and attentive.

His reward was to have most-favored-nation status among journalists when Ali made a sensational comeback in the early 1970s, with exclusive interviews at every key juncture. Also, Ali and Cosell made for a great pair on television. Whether or not they were friends in the conventional sense is probably impossible to determine—though Ribowsky tries—but they had chemistry. Opposites in all the obvious ways, they were both braggarts, both kidders, both self-dramatizers; they keyed off of each other like the expert performers they both were.

Ribowsky has unearthed a Rosebud-style moment in one of Cosell’s memoirs that he offers as explanation for the later success of his pairing with Ali. Just after World War II, Cosell, then in law school, encountered Stanley Kramer, the film director, who was trying to decide between two projects that were both angry fictional exposés of anti-Semitism, Arthur Laurents’s play Home of the Brave and Arthur Miller’s novel Focus. Cosell voted for Focus, but Kramer said that he thought it was too similar to Gentleman’s Agreement. Instead, Cosell remembered Kramer’s telling him, he’d make Home of the Brave, except that “I’ll make the Jewish boy black and I’m gonna deal with the great problem of America to come. The black problem.”

Cosell himself was the sort of Jew who would seem echt-Jewish to the outside world and assimilationist to other Jews. He was raised Howard Cohen, though his family’s name change was arguably in the direction of closer conformation to its original, old-country version, Kozel. He had no religious education, he married a Protestant, and he and his wife raised their two daughters without any religious practice or identity. His wedding and his funeral both took place in churches, one Presbyterian and one Methodist. But as it was for many people of his generation and experience, Cosell’s Jewishness was ineradicable. He was instinctively Zionist, and he was always quick to attribute career setbacks to anti-Semitism.

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