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Telling It Like It Was
Alexandra Fenwick
December 05, 2011
A sportscasting giant is interpreted for a generation that never knew him
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December 05, 2011

Telling It Like It Was

A sportscasting giant is interpreted for a generation that never knew him

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A doorstop of a book at 477 pages, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports is exactly the kind of hefty tome that Cosell would have agreed his career deserved, but without any of the embellishments that the self-proclaimed Gifted One's own three memoirs were stuffed with. Instead, author Mark Ribowsky's clear-eyed take on the broadcaster who built his career on "telling it like it is" reveals the insecurities that fueled Cosell's bravado, charting his ascension from growing up in a middle-class home in Brooklyn to a short-lived career as a lawyer before elbowing his way into radio and TV and becoming the most influential—and controversial—sports commentator in America.

The book's widely sourced account of Cosell's career (24 pages of footnotes), including over 40 new interviews with figures like Muhammad Ali cornerman Angelo Dundee, lends the book an authoritative, academic air. But it's also a treatise: Ribowsky makes the case that Cosell—with principled stances, like his legal-minded defense of Ali's refusal to serve in the Vietnam War—deserves credit for elevating sports to the level of news by putting them into the context of world events. As Ribowsky recounts, a listener complained following Cosell's eulogy of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, on his Speaking of Sports radio show, just hours after Kennedy was assassinated, "Just give us the scores, that's what you're paid for." Of course, Cosell would make his name by ignoring such advice on ABC's Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football until he hung up his mike in 1985.

In his acknowledgements, Ribowsky writes that he undertook the project, some 15 years after Cosell's death, in order to reclaim "an important life from the scrap heap of history," arguing that Cosell's legacy has long been forgotten, leaving an absence of intelligent, opinionated voices in sports broadcasting today. Instead, Ribowsky hears loud voices and not much substance, and certainly none of Cosell's readiness to risk unpopularity. We're given the scores. But what a latter-day Cosell would make of the thorny issues that form the backdrop of today's sporting events—global economic disaster, intolerance, gay rights—we can only imagine.

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