A new biography has just been published about Howard Cosell, the famous and controversial sportscaster. I’d like to add some personal notes on the man.
In the 1970s and 1980s Howard Cosell was known mostly for two things: Monday Night Football and defending Mohammad Ali’s right to refuse to be drafted
during the Vietnam War.
In those years I was Washington Vice President of the American Broadcasting Company, and when ABC would broadcast Monday Night Football from Washington we held a reception at RFK stadium before the game. I invited Members of Congress and their staffs and asked Cosell if he’d like to be the host. He accepted
and was the star of the party each year.
At ABC we used to say, “Cosell is like Listerine. People love to hate him twice a day.” He was often threatened and at the reception he was accompanied by two bodyguards.
During one such event, he showed me an article written about him in a small Midwestern newspaper. “Look at what this son-of-a-bitch said about me,” he said.
“Howard,” I said, “you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
“I’m thinking of suing,” he said. But he never did. Cosell, who practiced law early in his career, was too good a lawyer not to know that a public figure stands almost no chance of winning a libel suit against a columnist.
When you had a one-on-one relationship with Cosell, he was pleasant and would have an intelligent conversation. But as soon as more people showed up, he lapsed into his act.
Marty Rubinstein, an ABC News Vice President, tells of the time he walked into the ABC employees cafeteria in New York.
“I suddenly heard the booming Cosell voice from the other end of the room. Cosell,[who was Jewish] shouted ‘There are too many Jews in ABC. We can’t do anything about Goldenson [ABC Chairman]. We can’t do anything about Erlick [Executive Vice President]. But Rubinstein has to go.’ “
Marty wanted to shrivel up and disappear.
At lunch one day, I asked Cosell how he remembered so much detail about all football players, their sports history, their wives names, and so forth.
“Howard, do you use some sort of system?”
He finished his mouthful of food and said simply, “Superior brain.”
Cosell came to Washington one day to appear on a Congressional panel of witnesses at a hearing about whether Ring Magazine had used improper methods to rate boxers.
In the car, on the way to the hearing, I briefed him: This was going to be an adversarial hearing, so be careful what you say. Don’t speak unless a Congressman addresses a question directly to you. Be respectful. And be careful of the committee counsel who may try to taunt you.
With that, he exploded, “I’m not going to let some little snot-nose climb up on my back…!”
His wife, Emmy, whom he adored, sat alongside him and said quietly, “Howard, listen to the man.”
At the hearing, things seemed to go well. The head of ABC Sports sat on Cosell’s left and my boss, ABC’s Executive Vice President, sat on his right. Cosell was respectful, answered one or two questions directed to him and held his tongue until, suddenly, something another witness said reminded him of a story. And he then launched into reminisces about his same experience. My heart sank. But, just as suddenly, he stopped dead in the middle of a sentence.
The committee chairman looked startled and said, “Mr. Cosell, would you like to continue?”
Cosell said no.
After the hearing (where we lost no skin ) I sat privately in a car with my boss and said, “Ev, why did Cosell suddenly stop talking?”
“I kicked him,” Ev said.
“You kicked him?”
“Yeah, I gave him a good lick in the shin under the table. That shut him up.”
Cosell was realistic about television broadcasting. “There’s one thing about this business” he said, “there is no place in it for talent. That’s why I don’t belong. I lack sufficient mediocrity.”