I'm watching Bob Costas chuckle and crinkle his nose on NBC's The Major League Baseball Game of the Week, and I'm thinking, It can't be. It can't be. I actually miss Howard. Not Howard the Duck, Howard Cosell.
You remember Cosell, the know-it-all who drove you nuts with his long-winded pronouncements on sports in America. What's to miss, right? The guy was a nag. So what if he was the most liked sportscaster in the country—he was the most disliked, too. But at least he said something. These network guys like Costas, Al Michaels and Brent Musburger never say anything. What's worse, they don't stand for anything.
So what did Cosell stand for? I called him up and asked. It didn't take long for him to start telling it like it is. "I stood for the Constitution in the case of the U.S. versus Muhammad Ali," he said. "I stood for the 14th and 15th Amendments. I stood for minority causes I believed in. I stood for journalism. Sportscasters today aren't concerned with issues and causes." Can you see any of those other guys putting their careers on the line for Ali? O.K., maybe for Ali McGraw.
Nowadays, sportcasters treat their craft as if it's some kind of entry-level position toward a show-biz career. Suddenly they're all over the tube talking about everything but sports: Costas and Marv Albert zinging one-liners on Hollywood Squares; Ahmad Rashad and Pat O'Brien gurgling hyperbole on Entertainment Tonight; Rashad, Albert and Costas guest VJ-ing on Friday Night Videos. If they don't have their own sitcom or house on the prairie, they're calling swivel-chair races for Letterman.
"Television is an exposure business," Albert says. "By exposing yourself in settings other than sports, you help your likability." And that, as they say, "moves your numbers." Numbers are what market researchers count on their fingers and toes. The higher your numbers, the more money you can make. The idea is to be likably inoffensive. It doesn't pay to be Cosell anymore.
Costas, who moonlights as the host of his own E-Z listening celebrity gab show on late-night TV, is leading the chatterbox charge. "I'd like to be perceived as an entertaining sportscaster," he says. "I'm not an entertainer first and foremost." Later with Bob Costas does play like a postgame show, though hardly anybody wears a towel. Costas is so used to slinging flutterball wisecracks that he won't throw the hard stuff. "I don't have the heart to nail people," he admits. "Is it worth upsetting Chevy Chase by drilling him about all the lousy movies he makes when I'm really thinking I might like to go to a Knicks game with him?" He brings the same critical vigor to the Game of the Week, on which controversy means questioning an umpire's call, then quickly adding, "But these guys do a great job. They really do."
TV sports people don't break stories and they don't bruise them, either. They hardly touch them. The way they tap-danced around the Pete Rose allegations, you would think they had studied under Bojangles Robinson. The Al Campanis affair? Ted Koppel broke that on Night line. Who exposed Jimmy the Greek? Not the group at CBS, who worked with him for 12 years on NFL Today; it was a local news crew in Washington, D.C. The winner of this year's Emmy for sportswriting? Bryant Gumbel of NBC News for the network's coverage of the Summer Olympics in Seoul. The early favorite for next year? Tom Brokaw for NBC News's documentary on the black athlete. "It's ridiculous!" says Cosell. "What happened to the so-called talent hired to cover the games? What are they getting their millions for?"
To be cheerleaders, that's what. To assure us that everything's all right. To make us feel at home on the range by never saying a discouraging word. After all, the networks have shelled out millions to show this stuff, so why cheapen it? Michaels has said, "We can't reach the point where we're treating sports the same as a war story or a domestic crisis. It should never reach that point."
Well, this is going to make Michaels unhappy, but, like it or not, sportscasters are journalists. They're not just covering games, they're reporting news events. By telling it like they think we hope it is, they're degrading the whole field.
We could blame all this on Cosell, too. He was sportscasting's first real celebrity. He played the dual role of himself and his ego in half a dozen TV shows, a couple of Woody Allen films and 235 Monday Night Football telecasts. But then, Cosell was a commentator first, a phenomenon later. And he didn't turn entertainer until he had his own variety show, which reached the peak of chutzpah when he and Barbara Walters crooned, "Anything you can do, I can do better." No other sportscasters have dared repeat that feat, but they might. It would be nice to be able to dislike them for something other than their likability.