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There Is Much More to Cosell and Book

October 20, 1985|TONY KORNHEISER | The Washington Post

It should go without saying that Howard Cosell's new book, "I Never Played The Game," is controversial. This is the man who has been nothing less than sports in our time, larger than everything he covered and ever so much louder than life.

What were you expecting from him, something subtle, something tame, something in a discreetly muted plaid? Are you out of your mind? The man is a Day-Glo zoot suit. Howard Cosell doesn't roll in on little cat's feet. He huffs and he puffs and he blows your house down.

By now you undoubtedly have heard the sirens about the book. If you're looking for bombshell quotes, here's a highlight tape: Cosell calls Frank Gifford a "Teflon man," explaining that "no matter how glaring his weaknesses as a performer, nothing sticks to him." He says Don Meredith "rarely prepared for a telecast in the manner of a professional broadcaster," and that "he wanted to be the unqualified star of the (Monday Night Football) telecast. If he couldn't be, bye-bye." He critiques O.J. Simpson's 1984 performance, writing, "He couldn't articulate spontaneously and thus wasn't understandable to the viewers." This is marquee value stuff, as is saying how Pete Rozelle "can't go on hoodwinking the public and the press much longer," and how Roone Arledge is "obsessed with power."

But just as a headline isn't the story, those quotes aren't this book. A person who reads only headlines, doesn't read at all. And there is much to read here.

I have been a longtime admirer and steadfast advocate for Cosell, and I continue to be, although I was occasionally distressed by the book's pedagogic tone, which evolves naturally from Cosell's trademark style and from the self-serving nature of autobiography. Cosell is by far the best sports journalist to ever work in television, and the sections of the book that are most impressive, that are, in fact, revelatory, are those in which he emphasizes interpretive reporting and minimizes criticism.

Chapters dealing with how and why Bowie Kuhn was deposed as baseball commissioner, and the meteoric career of Sugar Ray Leonard are particularly insightful, but the book's most valuable work comes first, in those chapters devoted to a contemporary history of the NFL and how it has clearly, and in Cosell's view cavalierly, failed to protect the public from the ravages of franchise removal.

Cosell always has been at his best when roused to passion by an issue that boxes the moral compass of his career: sports, civil rights and the law. Cosell's journalistic reputation was forged when he consistently and courageously spoke out on the civil crime committed against Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his title, without due process, after he refused induction into the military on religious grounds. Two decades after carrying the torch for civil rights, Cosell is again on the march, this time for civic rights.

Examining the shifts of the Rams to Anaheim, the Raiders to Los Angeles and the Jets to New Jersey, Cosell concludes that "the decline of the NFL could be seen in power, greed, arrogance, complacency and disregard for the public. Money, from whatever source, had taken over the league." Accusing NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle of gross irresponsibility and personal vendetta in the Al Davis case, Cosell writes that Rozelle "failed to exercise leadership just when his league needed it the most."

If there is a theme running throughout this book it is greed--for power, for money, for fame, for control, greed shared by leagues, by owners and by sponsors. In Cosell's case there is not so much greed as deep need for acceptance and praise, particularly from Arledge and generally from the print medium that he attacks with such vitriol.

One of the striking, if unintentional, character traits revealed in the book is Cosell's apparent insecurity. Peter Bonventre, the distinguished sports reporter who wrote the book, did a superior job of letting Cosell be Cosell. The problem with that, as it has remained through the years, is that Cosell has such a polarizing effect on an audience; he is unique among his television sports contemporaries in that he has been certifiably both the most liked and the most disliked personality in his field.

He transcends his medium, but like Cassandra he is not duly honored in his time. And like Goliath he will not go gently. He's no humble retiree, grateful for a gold watch. He doesn't regret a word of this book, not any of the criticisms of Gifford and Simpson.

"I made professional judgments, not personal ones," Cosell said the other day, responding to the notion that he had perhaps treated his friends too harshly. "I didn't write anything evil. I told the truth."

Indeed, there is nothing there that hasn't been clear to viewers, nothing that Cosell hadn't said before, even if it seems uncharitable in this context. Any proof that Cosell seeks is evident; without him, Monday Night Football is routinely insufferable.

"I was the key ingredient, and Arledge always knew it," he writes about the beginnings of Monday Night Football. "I realized early on that it was up to me to interact with the millions of women and casual fans who were tuning in and get a reaction out of them. Monday Night Football very quickly managed to transcend the game of football. The game became less important than the act of watching it on television. . . . If I had only one jock to cope with, I could've changed the nature of the telcasts, elevated them by providing more information beyond what was happening on the field, more enterprising journalism, and a more entertaining approach to the games. Why not? Who's kidding whom? Who the hell made Monday Night Football unlike any other sports program on the air? If you want the plain truth, I did."

In your heart, you know he's right.

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