On a winter night in 1983, in a dining room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City, the face that had launched a thousand quips was up now and floating among the tables of network talking heads and sports celebrities.
It was a dinner for the Special Olympics, and no one navigated such an occasion more noisily than Howard Cosell, particularly when he was fondling his ninth vodka martini. And suddenly there he was across the room, hovering over one table, scolding and sarcastic, loud and bombastic—the familiar cigar jabbing at the air, the voice growing louder as the Havana grew shorter. Howard was Coselling again, speaking of sports, of broadcasting, of anything that came to mind. Finally the rest of the room fell silent, and all to be heard was the voice of Howard, America's voice. During the lull, Howard's wife, Emmy, sitting across the room, summoned her husband back to earth with a voice that went boom in the night.
"Howard, shut up! Nobody cares."
After it was announced on Sunday that Cosell had died of a heart embolism at 4 a.m. in a Manhattan hospital, the thought of that old rebuke came back again with a kind of eerie resonance. Of all the figures in modern American sport, none inspired a sense of ambivalence that ran quite as deep and powerful as did Howard Cosell, in life and in death, and this was nowhere more evident than in the eulogies served up on Sunday with a side of ice. Bob Costas's piece on NBC was delivered with a very dry eye, and even Cosell's former boss at ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, could summon nothing that could be properly described as emotion. " Howard Cosell was one of the most original people ever to appear on American television," Arledge said. "He became a giant by telling the truth in an industry that was not used to hearing it and considered it revolutionary."
It all rang, in a rather unsettling way, as though nobody really gave a damn. It has been 10 years since Cosell left TV broadcasting, a dozen since he abandoned the booth on Monday Night Football, and there is a whole new generation out there that has missed the gaudiest, smartest and most entertaining and unforgettable television broadcaster in the history of sports—a superb reporter who worked harder and asked better questions than anyone else who'd ever worn earphones. They also have missed a man who was, by turns, well.... Let him tell it like it was: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." All he forgot was irritating, generous, egomaniacal, funny, paranoid, charming, insecure and.... "If Howard Cosell were a sport, he'd be roller derby," said columnist Jimmy Cannon.
Above all, he was sui generis, an unalloyed original who, as a homely Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn, brought to television what one writer called "the grand slam of network liabilities." Upon arriving on the national scene in the 1960s, Cosell got swept up in the political currents quickened by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."
If his alliance with Ali launched him as a social force—a regular in front of congressional committees and college classrooms—his 14 years on Monday Night Football made him an enduring celebrity, at once the most loved and the most reviled of broadcasters. On Monday nights bar owners all over America held contests in which the winner got to heave a brick at How-wud's visage on a television screen. One night in the 1970s, as he left the broadcast booth following a game in Baltimore, the crowd around him grew so menacing, pressing in and shouting obscenities, that policemen formed a wedge to shield him. Stepping onto the elevator, Cosell adjusted his tie and sniffed, "Have you ever seen such animals'?" By then, of course, the game had become the undercard to the main event. Cosell was the show.
When his television career ended in the mid-1980s, he left as one of the most influential figures in sports, and very much in the Cosellian tradition, he did not leave quietly. He wrote two books attacking just about everything in sports, including a number of his former colleagues on Monday Night Football, leaving behind a bitter and angry history of his life and times in the world of games. Cosell was too much of an original to leave heirs, and the landscape of broadcast journalism that he left on Sunday looks much the way he found it 35 years ago. Once again the waves are filled with talking heads and apologists, with hometown cheerleaders and mindless drones. No one is asking the questions that he asked. And Emmy was right—nobody cares.