What Would Howard Cosell Say?

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Guest post by sportswriter Richard Kagan

With Ray Rice’s appeal hearing now underway on his indefinite suspension by the NFL for domestic violence, I remembered how sports commentators stumbled and fumbled a few weeks ago when a video surfaced of the Baltimore Ravens running back punching out his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator.

Immediately, I heard a distinctive staccato voice in my head, saying, “Hello everyone, this is Ho-ward Co-sell, speaking of sports.”

That was Cosell’s signature sign-on, delivered in his striking technique, whether before a big fight, the Wide World of Sports show, or his five-minute commentaries on ABC Radio.

At a moment like this, I miss Cosell. Unlike the Rice commentators, he would have said what needed to be said. Cosell was outspoken. Few sports commentators are today. Bill Simmons, an exception, was recently suspended by ESPN for disparaging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his podcast.  (Goodell was the first witness on Wednesday to testify at the Rice hearing. What he said is as yet unknown because of a gag order in the case. Rice attended, accompanied by his now-wife, Janay.)

Cosell, who died at age 77 in 1995, was a special, entertaining mix of lawyer and man on the street. He left the law profession to work in sports media. He first wrote sports columns, then found his way to ABC radio with his own show. It soon became apparent, Howard could not be stopped.

He drew you in with his prosecutorial tone and his “tell it like it is” approach. He surely wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But he was a lightning rod in sports media for more than two pivotal decades, as NFL football grew and pro boxing declined.

Back in 1974, I said to myself, “I’ve got to meet him.” I was doing my master’s thesis in communications at Ohio State University, and my topic was viewer perception of Cosell and his broadcasting message. I could have done this study without interviewing him; there was plenty of material and he had co-written three books about his style, opinions, and approach to sports broadcasting.

But something urged me to talk to him, despite my student anxiety. I wanted to meet the man who could get serious about constitutional law, as when Muhammad Ali objected to fighting in the Vietnam War on religious grounds. He could also be the comedy straight man while Ali glared at Cosell’s head and said, “Howard, I want to take off your toupee.” Everyone at that taping laughed and I did too, as I watched on TV.

When I flew to New York to visit friends and relatives, I summoned the courage to call the man who by then was synonomous with sports in America.

To my surprise, I was put through to Cosell. I asked for an interview, and Cosell said, “Be ready to come back when I can fit you in.” He sounded like he did on TV.

I put down the phone and screamed, jumping up and down. Cosell said yes!

I began impersonating Cosell’s irresistible voice, “I can fit you in, young man.” My cousin, from whose office I had called, said she had never seen me so joyous. For months I walked around repeating, “Hello everyone, this is Ho-ward Co-sell, speaking of sports.”

When the time for the interview came, I flew to New York, my tape recorder and microphone packed, with plenty of tapes and batteries, and a slew of papers and notepads. As I entered the lobby of the ABC-TV building on Avenue of the Americas, the first person I saw was legendary boxing promoter Don King, his hallmark hairstyle standing tall. By the time I stood in the elevator, nothing could quiet my jumpy nerves.

Walking into Cosell’s office I heard him bellow, “Let me know if Frank calls.” He might have meant Frank Gifford, his broadcasting partner, or Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board. I fantasized that he meant Sinatra. Then “Sammy” called and I guessed he was talking to Sammy Davis, Jr. If you’re rich and famous, you talk to the rich and famous.

“Well, young man, what is this all about?” Cosell said as soon as I stood before him, like the Tin Man standing before the great and powerful Oz.

“Just ask me questions,” he said, “and I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

So I asked him a question. He grabbed the microphone from my hand and answered like he was on location. He gave long answers and pontificated. But he also had sharp insights.

After just over an hour, my time was up. I packed my stuff and said my thanks. After I left that day, Cosell’s hallmark phrase never left me: “Sports is a microcosm of society.” Forty years later, it’s still with me.

Has that notion ever been truer than it is today? The professionalization of college sports. Steroids. Violence in football. The Ray Rice controversy, including whether Goodell and other NFL officials knew in advance about the video. No wonder Cosell’s voice came into my head. I’d love to hear his take on Donald Sterling, Adrian Peterson and what is the NFL’s responsibility versus law enforcement?

Cosell’s mission was to reveal the inequity of a situation and question the established culture that permitted it to go unchecked, usually because money was at stake. He would have decried the violence of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and the racism of Donald Sterling.  He used English like an oversized, but effective cudgel.  One might not have liked it, but when Cosell told it like it was, he wasn’t worried about currying favor or only raising his ratings. His training was founded in the law and as self-parodying as he could seem, his ambition was to serve justice—in sports and in the flawed world it reflected.