Howard Cosell passed away 20 years ago this month. In this three-part series, we will be looking back on his contributions to sports media. The first installment, which ran last week, detailed his eventual disillusionment with sports.
There was never going to be Another Howard Cosell. That much was clear even in his era. His fervent originality alone assured as much, and his omnipresence would never be duplicated in the ensuing mass fragmentation of media.
“In a throwaway business, he survives; in the most imitative of businesses, he hasn’t met his match, let alone been surpassed,” wrote Frank Deford in a 1983 SI cover feature. “Both the novelty and the monopoly of the three networks have so diminished that it’s unlikely one personality, no matter how special, will ever again be so important. Cosell is the first and last of a line.”
To try and figure out what Cosell would be doing today is, by the nature of the experiment, an inexact science. But, it’s intriguing to think about. There’s no way to replicate how external circumstances drove his internal will. “He would have been different in this age because he was a product of his era,” says his old friend and former New York Times writer and ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte. “He would not have been a man who was shaped by the Depression, by being Jewish in Brooklyn, by World War II service.”
HEIRS AND HEIRESSES
Looking around, you can see elements of Cosell in a myriad of sports mediaites. Tony Kornheiser’s wry wit. Keith Olbermann’s demand for institutional accountability. Stephen A. Smith’s theatrics. Bob Costas’ impeccable broadcasting timing. Rachel Nichols’ blunt questioning. Bill Simmons’ early adoption of new mediums and battles with management. Bryant Gumbel’s HBO program. The sense you get that the game being called by Marv Albert or Brent Musburger is a marquee event. However:
“You see a lot of people who are doing what Cosell did, collectively — yes, there’s a major Cosell effect,” Deford said in a phone interview. “But, it wasn’t collective. It was individual. There’s no question that men and women on sports radio and television now are more outspoken than they were at that time. There’s more opportunity for them to be. Where, in 1983, did you have the chance to speak out if you were in sports? There weren’t that many places.”
“You did have newspaper columnists in 1983, but by and large they were limited to their cities,” Deford continued. “A fraction of them were syndicated. They were outspoken, but they were talking mostly about local teams and issues. Even if they were talking about national issues, their readership was confined to that municipality. So, it’s not that nobody else was speaking out, it’s that nobody had the megaphone that Howard did.”
To me, Pardon the Interruption represents a partial evolution of what Cosell might be doing in modern television. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have input on topics ranging from utter frivolity to utmost seriousness. While they may come under scrutiny when Wilbon calls for Jurgen Klinsmann to leave the country, or something else along those lines, they represent an erosion of Cosell’s hated jockocracy. They occupy a strong daily spot on ESPN that only rarely gets preempted, and you won’t ever hear anyone question their right to opine on sports that they never played.
PTI executive producer Erik Rydholm, who echoed Deford’s sentiments about media fragmentation, was not sure there would be room on PTI for Cosell and a co-host. “I suspect that Cosell would remain polarizing and thoughtful, but wouldn’t be nearly as significant of a presence,” Rydholm, who also produces Around the Horn and Highly Questionable, emailed. “The platforms are all diluted. There are so many more voices. Social media can expose anyone. What Cosell undeniably had was a sense of drama, and a socially progressive perspective that went beyond sports that’s now almost required. As far as chemistry with someone else goes, I’m not sure Cosell needed nor wanted another voice – especially not one that challenged his preeminence. All of that said, would I want to work with him? You betcha.”
Tony Kornheiser, who knew Cosell and was one of the rare sportswriters that the broadcaster liked, was also not sure how Cosell would fit into the framework of PTI, or whether he’d even enjoy it. “There is no such thing as a co-host for Howard Cosell,” Kornheiser said in a phone interview. “Get that out of your mind. He was Howard Cosell. There would be no co-host. I don’t think that’s even feasible. Howard would not have stood for that. I’m not sure if he would’ve liked PTI. He thought most sportswriters were imbeciles. I don’t know what he would be doing today. Howard was a singular talent, and I mean singular. I don’t think he would’ve worked with anybody else.”
I asked Kornheiser if he saw similarities between Cosell and Keith Olbermann. “I agree with you on Keith — I think he’s the logical connect-the-dots guy,” he said. “I’m a big fan of Keith Olbermann. The thing that Howard valued most was brains, and Keith’s got brains.”
Dave Kindred, who wrote a dual biography of Cosell and Muhammad Ali entitled Sound and Fury, concurred. “Howard would have to be the star of anything he did today — there’s no doubt about that,” Kindred said. “His ego would demand that, and almost nothing else. That was one of the things that enabled him to be a star in his time. There was nobody else. He was everything. Everything that he did, he did by himself. Everything that broadcast media has grown into, he did in one version or another. Olbermann is a direct descendant. He’s smart and can connect the dots between cultural events and sports events. He’s the closest to Cosell. Cosell wanted out of the sports box — for a stretch, Olbermann was out of the sports box.”
Where Cosell had spent the entirety of his broadcast television career at ABC before torching bridges in 1985’s I Never Played the Game, Olbermann had contentious exits at ESPN, MSNBC, Fox Sports, MSNBC again, and Al Gore’s startup Current TV. “He didn’t burn bridges here, he napalmed them,” said ESPN PR officer Mike Soltys in 2001. The passage of more than a decade, and the impending launch of a mutual enemy in Fox Sports 1 in the summer of 2013, proved enough to mend fences.
Though Olbermann found himself in trouble — and apologized — when he unbecomingly exacerbated a tiff with pediatric cancer fundraisers at Penn State (who had gone after him based on his previous criticism of their deity Joe Paterno), by all appearances he seems at peace with his role as an elder statesman in his return to ESPN. Where Cosell was ultimately never able to relax and embrace something like that, present day Olbermann has struck a balance of offering deservedly scathing critiques of corrupt powerful figures and institutions, while rising above the fray of internal politics. Last October, he told SI’s Richard Deitsch that he is focusing on his own work and deflected any potentially controversial questioning by conceding that it’s not his “day to run the network.” Right before that, he had been rewarded for his good behavior — and his good show — and his ESPN2 program was moved from late night to 5pm.
While right wing ESPN viewers initially objected to Olbermann’s renewed presence in their sports because of his stances taken during about a decade in cable news, by one metric their voiced displeasure mostly dissipated. “I received a lot of mail about that when he first came back,” says recent ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte. “But as time went on, the flood turned to a trickle — I don’t know whether they lost heart, got used to him, or found he wasn’t that objectionable.”
Olbermann, who at one point paid direct homage to Cosell’s acclaimed daily radio addresses, cites the broadcaster as an influence. “I can tell you its not coincidental that my radio station at Cornell carried Cosell and several hundred times I heard the live feed as I recorded it, and again when we played him in the middle of my sportscast,” Olbermann emailed. “I also saw him do local TV as a kid and absorbed his skepticism.”
“Assuming our 2015 Cosell was my age or older he’d probably be grandfathered in to the spectrum,” said Olbermann. “But would he get the venues that made him titanic? In the era of leagues’ ultra-sensitivity, how would he appear on the NFL, MLB, boxing, and the Olympics all at once? On the other hand, Howard’s 1970’s problem with controversy? An employer would now encourage it while hoping to contain and direct it much as Arledge did. But most importantly his tragic flaw — his inability to wait for others to acknowledge his greatness — would now barely be noticed. They might have been comparing Puig’s bat flip to Cosell.”
Olbermann felt that while today’s fragmented landscape would make Cosell less ubiquitous, it would also present better opportunities to break out of sports. “Ultimately, the same person time-shifted 40 or 50 or 60 years would have been irresistible to other parts of this industry,” he said. “Cosell often thought he should be doing the nightly newscast for ABC; today, that would’ve been too confining and small. But as my own career and Bob Costas’s and Bryant Gumbel’s suggest, there would’ve been plenty of other platforms in news and political TV that he would’ve thrived in, in addition to or in lieu of, just sports.”
While hesitant to speculate about specifics in such a different environment, Tony Kornheiser had similar thoughts to Olbermann. Referencing show format as opposed to outright personality, Kornheiser envisioned — and, again, this is broadly, and not declarative or concrete — that Cosell might have a platform like that of an old Olbermann nemesis.
“I would imagine that the forum he would have now might be similar to Bill O’Reilly’s,” Kornheiser said. “He’d have an hour show on a nightly basis, and talk about whatever he wanted. I think he’d like it to be general rather than about sports, but he loved sports, so he wouldn’t necessarily eliminate it from the diet of what he was doing. I don’t think that for a second. I think he was a generalist. He knew a lot of things about a lot of things. I think there would be a network executive out there somewhere who would realize that this guy is just better than anybody else, put him on the air, and let him do his thing.”
Though Olbermann eventually had similar exits from cable news as from his first run at ESPN (and none of this is to imply that management was entirely blameless along the way), he achieved a great deal more success at MSNBC, where he was instrumental in establishing an identity for the fledgling network, than Cosell ever did occupationally outside of sports. Whether Cosell would have had greater accomplishment in other realms today because he or the times would have been different, or a combination thereof, is a matter of interpretation.
“There was always the talk that he was gonna expand,” says Frank Deford. “He considered a run for Senate at one point. ABC was constantly changing its news anchor, and there was talk that Howard would be moved in at some point. I get my years mixed up, but think it was about at the time that Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters were paired. But, none of those things ever materialized, and I’m not so sure that he wasn’t more comfortable being the thinking man’s sports announcer. Once he stepped out of that territory, he wouldn’t get so much credit for being different. He’d just be another pundit, of which there were many. Howard had a good thing going for him, and he was singular. Had he stepped outside of that — had he been, say, a news anchor, and I don’t think Arledge ever seriously considered it — he would’ve just been one of three and he wouldn’t have been as different as he was under the circumstances.”
Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell debuted in 1975, and featured a dramatically different Cosell than the sports version who was a dogged reporter and incisive interviewer. From Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury:
Two anecdotes from Peter Bonventre, who co-authored I Never Played the Game and was a writer on Cosell’s acclaimed magazine-style show SportsBeat in the early 1980’s, accentuate the difference between what Cosell was like on his variety show versus in the sports domain. The first occurred before Game 3 of the 1983 World Series between the Phillies and Orioles. A despondent Pete Rose was benched amidst a slump.
“This was big news but Rose wouldn’t talk to anybody about it,” recalls Bonventre. “He was really depressed and kind of ashamed, and he wouldn’t talk. ABC was televising the game, so Howard gets out there, and he asks him a few perfunctory questions, and it’s going fine, and the producer tells him there’s 15 seconds. Then Howard hits him: ‘It hurts, doesn’t it?'”
The interview in question doesn’t appear to exist online, but it’s alluded to when Rose pinch hits shortly after the two-hour mark of the game broadcast:
“There was nobody like Howard in front of the camera,” says Bonventre. “His extemporaneous intelligence, if that’s what you want to call it, was incredible. I can give you an example. I remember when we were taping SportsBeat, and I get word in the room that Bear Bryant has died. So I go out there with the director Noubar Stone, who’s now at ESPN, and I go there and say to Howard, ‘We’ve got to close the show. We’ll cut something, but you’ve gotta do 90 seconds on Bear Bryant.'”
Bonventre launched into a spot-on Cosell impression: “I don’t want to do Bear Bryant. He was a racist and a drunk and a cheat. I don’t want to do it.” Shifting back and forth between his own voice and Cosell’s, Bonventre continued: “I’d always get to him by saying, ‘Howard, if you don’t do Bear Bryant right now so we can get it on the show, you don’t deserve to be sitting behind that desk.’ As always, that got him. He declined to let me prepare notes. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ We go into the control room and Howard says, ‘Just tell me when to go.'”
“Howard then goes into this opus of Bear Bryant that was so perfect you can’t believe it,” Bonventre said. “And then, Noubar tells him 15 seconds, and as he’s counting down, Howard logically and brilliantly comes to the end. Just like that. Right at 90 seconds. I saw him do this several times.”
In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that when Cosell veered away from the style that had made him so successful, his variety show bombed. Robert Lipsyte, who wrote for the short-lived program (which, incidentally, featured early-career Christopher Guest and Bill Murray as sketch performers), quoted a joke from head writer Walter Kempley: “This show is so bad not only is no one watching, they are going next door to turn off their neighbor’s set.”
“Roone Arledge produced that show, and he was a very disruptive force on it,” Lipsyte said. “He’d come in at the last second with some half-baked idea that his kids had come up with, and tear up the show on Saturday morning. Howard would go along with that.” Lipsyte cited this as evidence, despite perpetual protestations that would seemingly indicate the contrary, that he felt Cosell was ultimately a company man. He compared this dynamic to Bill Simmons, of whom I had, earlier in our conversation, asked about general comparisons to Cosell.
“Like Cosell, Bill Simmons’ rebelliousness can sometimes be disingenuous,” Lipsyte said. “It’s like being a billionaire in America and not wanting to affirm that the country’s army, police force, and infrastructure helped make everything possible. Simmons, Olbermann, and some of the others who you are talking about have accomplished a lot individualistically, but they are not entrepreneurs in the truest sense. They are mavericks within the confines of large institutions. Howard struggled a little bit with this at times, but he was really attached to Roone Arledge, and felt dependent on him.”
Cosell was a company man until he wasn’t, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing for this website’s traffic if Simmons were to follow suit and write a tell-all book smiting his enemies. Similarly to the way that Cosell carved out his niche on network television through the force of his personality, Simmons (who did not respond to a request for comment on this piece) was a trailblazer online, merging traditional sportswriting with the fan’s voice. He was also relatively early to both Twitter and podcasting.
The former would have given Cosell fits as his mentions inevitably would have become a septic system (in days where hate mail required actual effort, ABC received bushels of it on Cosell’s behalf), while the latter would have fit him perfectly if he were seeking to jump from law to broadcasting today.
You might have imagined yourself arguing in the bar with Cosell; Simmons feels like he’s one of your friends in your living room. Bill Simmons has about as large and devoted of a readership/listenership as one can amass today, but his fame pales in comparison to what Cosell’s was like.
“Everybody in the goddamn world knew Howard,” says Peter Bonventre. “Believe me. I spent almost four years night and day with the guy. Everybody knew him. You couldn’t walk down the street. Old ladies with blue hair. Little, five-year-old kids. The cops. The firemen. They’d give him a ride home if it was raining. The construction workers. I mean everybody. They all knew Howard. I’d walk through airports with him, and like Joe Theismann or OJ Simpson, and people would stop Howard and ask him for his autograph.”
There are other obvious differences between the two. Simmons came up first and foremost as a writer, and we’ve already alluded to Cosell’s displeasure with most of those in that profession. Where Cosell emphasized original reporting and strongly considered himself a journalist, Simmons has shied away from the label.
“My thing is I’m not sure that it matters what people are, and I think that’s a really antiquated way to think about it,” Simmons said in November. “First of all the word journalist: What does that even mean anymore? Don Van Natta is a journalist. That’s somebody that won a Pulitzer Prize. He wrote the great piece that ended up shaping a lot of my opinions about Roger Goodell. I’m paid to have an opinion. I’m paid to educate myself with whatever’s going on, come up with an opinion, and then write about it or talk about it creatively.”
On being a journalist, Cosell wrote in 1985:
“Simmons is an entirely different character than Cosell,” argues Frank Deford. “He’s in a different school. He created his own thing. He was the fan — Cosell was the expert, whether he was or not. They’re both quite original. I don’t mean Simmons wasn’t original. He was! I wouldn’t put him in the class with Cosell. They’re two entirely different areas, as I see it. It’s the time. Simmons could not have existed back then. There was no place for him. Just to me, he’s not a Cosellian type. He very much is original and deserves a lot of credit for carving out this territory for himself, but that’s not the issue here. But no, I don’t think Cosell was any particular influence on him.”
Deford feels that the outspokenness of Simmons, and countless others in this day and age, has more to do with the iterations of sports media than as a direct consequence of exposure to Cosell. “The whole media has gone in one direction — to be more critical, to be more cynical, to be more like Cosell,” Deford says. “Everybody’s going to say, to some extent, ‘Yes, Cosell was an influence on me.’ Every sports journalist is going to say that now. Despite the fact that Howard was marred in many ways, the main thing about him was that he did speak out, and so now every journalist is going to say he/she was influenced by Howard Cosell and his honesty. In that sense, he’s the father of us all.”
In addition to his blunt reporting and punditry, Cosell had a sixth sense for anticipating massive stories on both a micro and macro level. An example of this came in 1985 when Cosell just sensed there was too much money around and being bet on the NCAA Tournament. He assigned his SportsBeat staff, out of the blue and against their will, to research past point shaving scandals. Less than 48 hours later, three Tulane players were indicted for fixing games and the school dropped its basketball program. “I don’t know what his motivation was, but he was on our ass to do it, so we did,” says Peter Bonventre, who worked on the show. “We had interviewed Digger Phelps and Al McGuire and all these coaches. We got calls from Digger and McGuire they were convinced that we were tipped off from the FBI. We weren’t.”
While it’s nearly impossible to figure out exactly what platform(s) Cosell would be on today, it’s relatively easy to discern how he’d feel about various issues. His vehement disgust with public stadium funding surely would not have waned. He’d still be railing on about “bromides” from jocks in the booth and the studio (“momentum is huge“). He would probably have major contentions with PEDs, the NFL, and the NCAA. “The NCAA would be too easy for him now,” said Robert Lipsyte.
Cosell’s SportsBeat program covered anabolic steroid use amongst Olympians, and it’s almost certain that he would have had a field day as performance enhancers came to the forefront of more mainstream sports. “He would’ve torn them apart,” says Peter Bonventre. “This is partly because, and this is not to say he would not have legitimately been outraged as well, he just loved a good story. He would have loved to have sunk his teeth into these guys, just because that’s what Howard did. That’s what made him. He would’ve been screaming fire and brimstone from the pulpit, and he would’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.”
Cosell’s views on head trauma in football would also be of major interest. Fighter health, in addition to rampant corruption in boxing, drove Cosell away from that sport in the early 1980’s. He would leave football soon thereafter, but player safety was not then amongst his chief concerns. Whether or not it would’ve eventually culminated in him leaving football broadcasting, concussion research would’ve been at the forefront of his concern.
“If he could walk away from boxing, which he had become so associated with, how do you think he would approach concussions?” asked Robert Lipsyte. “That would’ve been his way in — concussions. Howard would’ve gotten in much earlier. I have to believe he would’ve. The settlement, the legal ramifications — that’s what he was really good at.”
Tony Kornheiser wasn’t sure whether it would have ultimately pushed Cosell away, but did feel that concussions would have been an important issue for him. “I think he would’ve railed about it, but I don’t know if it would’ve driven him away from the sport,” Kornheiser said. “I don’t think boxing is football. There’s a different level of violence. It might have driven him away, but I don’t exactly know what it would have driven him into. Maybe it would’ve driven him out of sports completely.”
The concussions alone may not have been enough, but the NFL has had one story after another that compound the amount of cognitive dissonance required to follow the sport, and this extends far past any obvious missteps in the Ray Rice debacle. From the bungling of Bountygate to the transparently sloppy and potentially dangerous Thursday night games to pushing for an 18-game schedule, to the league’s sham domestic violence initiatives, the circumstances are ripe for reporters with profound bully pulpits. “I’d love to see Cosell come back and cover Roger Goodell,” said Robert Lipsyte.
“I think Howard would have been very hard on Goodell,” said Frank Deford, who called for the Commissioner’s resignation last summer in an NPR address. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. How he would have treated Tagliabue, I don’t know, but he certainly would have been very harsh on Goodell. I think he would have seen what I think I’ve seen, which is pretty much an example of the Peter Principle — he just got promoted, and was friends with the right owners, but there’s nothing distinguished about him. I think Howard would’ve seen that.”
However, it’s not as though Goodell’s shortcomings have gone unnoticed by the general populace. They’re covered ad nauseam online, in print, on radio, and on television, and the NFL continues to thrive not just in spite of its issues, but perhaps partly because of the extra publicity. (That, and everybody, myself included, just loves watching football too much to give it up.) Deford lamented that his NPR addresses are getting harder and harder to create because every nook and cranny in major sports is picked clean by the volume of reporters and outlets shining a light on scandal.
This brings us back to the question of to what extent this has all been influenced by Cosell, who was the first to do this type of work on TV, or the times, which have increasingly evolved in that direction.
“I think that has more to do with the technology which has allowed more people the opportunity,” said Deford. “That’s not to take anything away from Howard, and certainly everybody who does speak out can be described as an heir of Howard Cosell. But, by the same token, I think the technology has given more chances for people to protest than it was him. I don’t even think kids today know who Cosell is. People like Olbermann, Costas, and Bryant Gumbel — you can definitely say they were directly influenced by Cosell, but there’s a whole generation coming up now that never even saw him on television.”
“I think his influence, through no fault of his own, is fading,” Deford continued. “He’s not the prominent figure that he was in the few years after his death. Too much time has passed. So, it’s not the Cosell influence so much as it is the technological influence, and just the tenor of the times. It isn’t just in sports. It’s across the board that the media is more critical. The media looks for more suspects than it used to. It was a much kinder, gentler media. We all go back to the fact that nobody ever wrote about athlete or politicians’ private lives. We didn’t! It’s been a sea change. The comparative outspokenness in sports media now is more of a result of that than it is a man who passed away 20 years ago.”
[Lead graphic by Rubie Edmondson/USA Today]