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  • Writer's pictureJamiese Hancy

🎙️ The Incredible Life of Howard Cosell, Sportscaster

A portrait of Howard Cosell is superimposed over a view from the booth of a pro football game.

🏈 Happy Birthday, "Humble Howard" Cosell. R.I.P. [1]


Introduction: Who Was Howard Cosell and Why Are We So Fascinated with Him?


Howard Cosell was one of America’s most controversial sports broadcast personalities. His provocative style and refusal to conform redefined the role of the sports commentator and forever changed the relationship between broadcasters and professional sports leagues. Cosell’s distinctive voice and fearless commentary made him one of the most recognizable figures in the sports broadcasting industry and revolutionized the way sports were covered on television.


Howard Cosell’s incredible accomplishments in the world of sports journalism continue to captivate us. From his early days as a lawyer to becoming one of the most distinctive voices on television, Cosell's impact on the industry is undeniable. His unique blend of wit, insight, and controversy made him a polarizing figure, but also earned him great respect and admiration from fans and colleagues alike.


From his first days on radio in the 1950s to the peak of his fame during his 14 years on Monday Night Football in the 1970s and 80s, Cosell tended to be loved and loathed for the same reasons: his blustery demeanor and arrogant immodesty. “Humble Howard,” as he was often sarcastically referred to, was once simultaneously voted the most popular and most disliked sports broadcaster in America.


Early Life: How Did Howard Cosell’s Career Begin?


Howard Cosell was born on March 25, 1918, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He spent his childhood in Brooklyn, where his love of sports ultimately shaped his path to success.


Cosell graduated from New York University with a law degree in 1940 and was admitted to the New York state bar the following year. He interrupted his law career by serving in the US Army during WWII. After he left the service in 1946, he opened a law office in Manhattan.


Cosell practiced law for 10 years, but eventually found his true calling in sports journalism. While he was an attorney, Cosell represented the Little League of New York and professional athletes, including  Willie Mays. He also became a huge fan and admirer of Jackie Robinson.


In 1953, Cosell began hosting a Saturday morning radio program about the Little League of New York for no pay on New York City radio station WABC. The popular show featured Little Leaguers interviewing Major League baseball players; Cosell wrote a large portion of each script. Three years later, in 1956, he quit his law practice to become a full-time broadcaster for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) radio and television network. He remained with ABC throughout his entire career.


Rise to Fame: How Howard Cosell Revolutionized Sports Broadcasting


– How Did Howard Cosell Revolutionize Television Sportscasting?


Howard Cosell is widely recognized as a trailblazer for his groundbreaking work as a sports commentator. His insightful commentary set him apart as a true icon in the industry. He was the voice of boxing, football, and more throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. 


Cosell’s use of analysis and context arguably brought television sports coverage close to the depth of factual news reporting. His distinctive staccato voice, accent, syntax, and cadence were in effect a form of commentary all their own.


Cosell transformed the way games were broadcast, bringing a new level of excitement and entertainment to television audiences. He left an indelible mark on the world of sports media, paving the way for future generations of commentators to follow in his footsteps.


– How Did Howard Cosell Revolutionize Boxing Sportscasting?


Howard Cosell's boxing sportscasting career was notably associated with some of the most memorable moments in boxing history. His commentaries on fights involving legendary boxers have become etched in sports history. Cosell's ability to capture the drama and intensity of these historic matches has solidified his legacy as one of the greatest sports broadcasters of all time.


Soon after he began covering the sport in the 1960s, Cosell met a very articulate, charismatic young boxer named Cassius Clay. The two had a natural rapport despite their different personalities and complemented each other during broadcasts. They would be forever linked, and their entertaining television interviews are legendary.


When Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Cosell was one of the first sports broadcasters to call him by his new name. Cosell staunchly supported Ali when the boxer was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam War for moral and religious reasons.

 

Cosell's support for Ali was crucial during a time when the boxer faced backlash and criticism for his stance against the Vietnam War. Cosell used his platform to amplify Ali's message. As a respected figure in the sports world, he helped bring attention to Ali's principled stand and provided a voice of reason amidst the controversy. Several years later, Cosell was the person who informed Ali that the United States Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in his favor in Clay v. United States.


Together, Cosell and Ali showcased how sports figures can use their influence to advocate for social justice issues by sparking important conversations about war, race, religion, and equality. Their partnership remains a powerful example of solidarity and support in the face of adversity.


Cosell also covered fights involving other prominent boxers, such as Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, and countless others. Perhaps his most famous boxing call occurred in the 1973 World Heavyweight Championship fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. When Foreman knocked Frazier to the mat only two minutes into the first round, Cosell shouted one of the most quoted phrases in sports broadcasting history: “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”


The last boxing match Cosell covered was Larry Holmes’ 15-round punishing victory over Tex Cobb in 1982. Cosell periodically expressed disgust with the referee for not stopping the fight. Shortly afterward he told a national television audience that he had broadcast his last professional boxing match. He just couldn’t stand the sickeningly one-sided violence he was hired to comment on that night.


– How Did Howard Cosell Revolutionize Olympic Sportscasting?


Howard Cosell worked many Summer Olympic Games for ABC. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, he voiced his approval of the Black-power salutes made by track-and-field sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand after winning the 200-meter gold and bronze medals, respectively. During a television interview with Cosell, the athletes explained that African-Americans were fed up with the institutional racism, discrimination, and poverty they faced in America. 


At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Cosell played a key role on ABC's coverage of the Palestinian terror group Black September's mass murder of Israeli athletes, providing reports directly from the Olympic Village. Cosell’s commentary is prominently on display in Munich, Steven Spielberg's 2005 film about the terror attack.


In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and 1984 games in Los Angeles, Cosell was the main voice for boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard won the gold medal in his light welterweight class in Montreal, beginning his meteoric rise to a world professional title three years later. Cosell became close to Leonard and announced many of his professional bouts.


– How Did Howard Cosell Revolutionize Football Sportscasting?


It was not boxing or the Olympics, though, that made Howard Cosell a household name and solidified his rise to fame – it was football. As a member of ABC’s original Monday Night Football broadcasting team, Cosell worked alongside football legends “Dandy” Don Meredith and Frank Gifford from 1970 to 1983, offering a style of commentary on football never heard anywhere before, much less on national television.


Cosell’s signature “I’m just telling it like it is” style captivated audiences with his brash opinions. His colorful personality often clashed with those of Meredith and Gifford to the delight of television viewers. His comments often fueled now-legendary on-air comedic clashes with Meredith, in particular. They propelled Monday Night Football to the nation’s top-rated program and established the show as a national phenomenon.


Typical Monday Night Football Banter:

Cosell: “There sure were a lot of blocked punts during yesterday’s games.”

Gifford: “Three.”

Cosell: “Seemed like more.”

Meredith: “Some were blocked twice.”


On the night of December 8, 1980, millions of Americans heard the news of John Lennon’s murder from Howard Cosell. During a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Cosell shocked the television audience by interrupting his regular commentary to deliver the tragic news. Cosell was friendly with Lennon, notably having interviewed the former Beatle on two separate occasions.


Controversy: What Criticisms and Challenges Did Howard Cosell Face?


Howard Cosell was famous, of course, for his uniquely bold style, which infuriated as many television audiences as it delighted. Some viewers and colleagues found his commentary to be overly harsh or controversial. This often led to backlash and resulted in a string of criticisms and challenges throughout his career.


Critics pointed out that Cosell's outspoken nature, abrasive demeanor, and confrontational approach toward athletes, coaches, and fellow broadcasters often overshadowed his talent as a journalist and led to mixed reactions from audiences.


Cosell also encountered challenges in maintaining professional relationships within the sports broadcasting industry. Balancing his strong opinions with professional relationships proved to be a constant struggle. His blunt honesty could rub people the wrong way, causing tension behind the scenes. Despite being respected for his knowledge and expertise, Cosell's approach could alienate those around him.


– What was the “Little Monkey” Incident?


Nothing could have prepared audiences for the comment that nearly ended Humble Howard's career. On September 5, 1983, Cosell was broadcasting a Monday Night Football game between Washington and Dallas. As Washington’s wide receiver Alvin Garrett broke free for an impressive gain, Cosell commented, "That little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?"


Garrett is Black, so the comment was considered racist by many people, including me. I don’t think Howard Cosell was racist at all, but I was watching the game live on TV, and when he made the “little monkey” remark, I immediately thought to myself, “Howard, how can somebody with such a big vocabulary be so stupid? Hurry up and acknowledge your faux pas and apologize!” But he didn’t do either.


The phones at ABC rang off the hook as viewers called in to complain. Cosell explained that he was referring to Garrett's speed, agility, and small size, and that he often called his granddaughter a little monkey for the same reasons. An investigation revealed that Cosell had previously referred to a white football player as a "little monkey."


It was also pointed out, quite correctly, that Cosell had a long history of championing Black athletes and causes. Muhammad Ali and Garrett spoke out in support of Cosell, with Garrett insisting that he "didn't feel it was a demeaning statement."


Still, by 1983, any media personality who didn't carefully consider the implications of comparing a Black man to a monkey was thoughtless at best. As a thunderstorm of Black leaders’ demands for a public apology rained down upon him, Cosell decided to leave Monday Night Football.


Cosell continued to host other shows on ABC, though, including SportsBeat, which was showered with Emmy Awards. Another recognition award, though, was consistently denied to him – a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – undoubtedly due in large part to his "little monkey" comment. Maybe someday…


Howard Cosell's "little monkey" comment ignited a heated debate about racial insensitivity in sports commentary. It serves as a reminder of the importance of language sensitivity and cultural awareness in sports broadcasting.


Legacy: How Has Howard Cosell Impacted and Influenced Sports Media Today?


Although Howard Cosell still remains a polarizing figure in the world of sports broadcasting today, his legacy continues to resonate, shaping the way we consume and engage with sports media. There’s no denying that his brash and unapologetic tell-it-like-it-is approach revolutionized sports commentary.


Cosell's influence transcended mere reporting, though. He brought a unique blend of wit, insight, and unabashed honesty to his work. He challenged conventions and sparked important conversations. His legacy serves as a reminder of the power of authentic storytelling and bold journalism in shaping public discourse.


Even in today's rapidly evolving media landscape, Cosell's impact endures, inspiring new generations of sports broadcasters to push boundaries as they strive for excellence. By remembering his contributions, we honor not just a legend but a trailblazer whose influence continues to shape the way we experience sports.


As we look back on Howard Cosell's legacy, we should be inspired by his passion for excellence in pursuit of journalistic integrity. His impact on sports broadcasting history serves as a testament to the influence of those who dare to challenge convention. 


Conclusion: Reflecting on the Incredible Life of Howard Cosell


Howard Cosell will forever be remembered as a man who was as good at alienating audiences as he was at captivating them, but to him, criticism was a form of homage.


His unapologetic, opinionated style simultaneously exasperated and endeared him to audiences around the globe. Through his work, Cosell not only entertained but also educated viewers, offering a fresh perspective on the sports they loved.


Reflecting on the incredible journey of Howard Cosell's life and his contributions to the sports broadcasting profession, we’re reminded of the pioneering spirit and unique style that set him apart from his peers and forever changed the landscape of sports commentary. From his confident approach to covering controversial topics to his iconic catchphrases that became ingrained in popular culture, Cosell left an indelible mark on the world of sports broadcasting.


A longtime smoker, Cosell was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991 and underwent surgery to have a malignant tumor removed. He retired from broadcasting the following year and was in failing health for the remaining three years of his life. Cosell died of a heart embolism on April 23, 1995, at the age of 77 at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. He’s interred at Westhampton Cemetery in Suffolk County, New York, next to his wife of 46 years, Mary Edith “Emmy” Abrams Cosell, who preceded him in death in 1990,. 


Cosell remains one of the most respected sports broadcasters of all time. In 1993, TV Guide ranked him as the all-time best sports broadcaster, and in 1996, ranked him 47th among the greatest television stars of all time.


In 1993, Howard Cosell was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 1994, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. The following year, he was the 1995 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. In 2007, Cosell was posthumously inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. ☮️ R.I.P., Howard… Jamiese


A smiling man and a woman are hugging each other in front of their pickup truck at a tailgate party.

🏈 Tailgate with Howard, and Tell It Like It Is! [2]


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