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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Cosell

October 04, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

No sportscaster ever left a larger residue of his personality on the medium than Howard Cosell .--Ron Powers in "Super Tube"

There are two Howard Cosells.

One Howard Cosell is a shrewd analyst of sports as a phenomenon whose impact ranges far beyond the arena and playing field.

That Cosell was in the booth with Al Michaels and Jim Palmer during ABC's coverage of the Kansas City Royals/Minnesota Twins game Sunday, leading a pointed and informed discussion of baseball's drug dilemma. Seldom have three persons in the same TV booth been as intelligent, thoughtful and articulate.

But Cosell was the catalyst.

That same Cosell--the longtime employee and recent critic of ABC--correctly notes in his controversial new book, "I Never Played the Game," that there is "an inexorable force working against revelations of truth about sports in America." He adds:

"That force exists in the form of an unholy alliance between the three television networks and the sports medium. It is the fundamental purpose of both, for their own reasons, to exalt sports, to regale the games, the fights, the races, whatever, to the point where these contests are indoctrinated into the public mind as virtual religious rituals."

Amen.

That same Cosell uses his book to reflect on the often slimy business of sports. With great insight, he comments about the greedy shifting of franchises, the evolution of free agency, Bowie Kuhn's last days as baseball commissioner. And he accuses Roone Arledge, who heads ABC's sports and news divisions, of an "obsession with power," calling his boss a man who "tolerates only yes men."

Then-- Uh oh! --there is the other Cosell.

This Cosell is a real pain, so petty, vindictive, hypocritical and obnoxious that you want to ram his cigar and phony ego up his nose.

Unfortunately, Cosell No. 2 is the one who prevails in his book, someone so pathetically paranoid that he continually attacks others in order to hide his own deep insecurities.

This Cosell accepts all the credit, none of the blame.

Many of the book's criticisms of Cosell's former "Monday Night Football" partners, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford (whom he dismisses as sort of a brainless gerbil), are justified. Meredith reportedly did not do his homework before telecasts. Gifford did, and still does, make too many mistakes.

As always, though, Cosell goes too far, blasting both as virtual incompetents. "Who the hell made 'Monday Night Football' unlike any other sports program on the air?" Cosell asks. "If you want the plain truth, I did."

Oh brother.

The early "Monday Night Football" was a smash primarily because it was an outstanding marketing concept, introduced at the right time, and secondarily because of the chemistry between the patronizing Cosell and folksy Meredith. Cosell alone? Rubbish!

He splashes his bravado across almost every page. He says that:

--He and Gifford rarely argued because "he had too much respect for me as a broadcaster. He admired my command of the language, my ability to communicate, and he was shrewd enough not to engage me in a debate. He had to know he couldn't win."

--He (Cosell) was tempted to threaten Meredith on the air: "Get into a duel of words with me, and I'll put you away."

--"The plain fact is, on almost every important issue in sports in my lifetime, the record stands: The overwhelming majority of sportswriters was wrong, and I was right."

The book also showcases Cosell the hypocrite:

--CBS sportscaster and beer pitchman John Madden is an "overblown parody" and a "caricature." Correct. But what, then, is Cosell? Has he forgotten that he has sold underwear on TV and continues to host ABC's schnooky "Battle of the Network Stars." This self-proclaimed moralist and giant of journalism also forgets to rebuke himself for his many clowning appearances on Dean Martin roasts. Nor does he take himself to task for his 1975 debacle as host of an ABC variety series bearing his name, preferring instead to strike out at Arledge ("As soon as Arledge realized the show was doomed, he quit on me. He became remote and inaccessible.").

--He has witnessed the "disgusting extent to which television will go in order to get a rating." Of course he has, up close and personal, in welcoming ABC entertainment stars into the "Monday Night Football" booth in order to promote their programs on ABC.

And, finally, here's Howard at his Coselliest, ranting like Capt. Queeg of "The Caine Mutiny" in a diatribe against his longtime foes, the nation's sportswriters:

"I became rich and famous and passed them by, and they envied me. They couldn't beat me, and it only added to their frustration. I was pilloried and excoriated for doing my job and getting ahead and making a reputation beyond my wildest dreams. What did they want from me? An apology?"

No, Howard. What everyone wanted from you was the one thing beyond your understanding, the one thing you couldn't give:

Humility.

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