You could make a case that Howard Cosell (1918–1995) was the single most important sports broadcaster ever. You would be right.
In a 1978 poll designed to identify TV’s most and least popular personality, Cosell won both categories, a perfect measure of his ubiquity and the controversy he aroused. Today, with more sports competing for attention in a fractured media environment, it’s difficult to imagine a commentator dominating the landscape as Cosell did during the ’60s and ’70s. Though he’d made tentative forays into radio, Cosell was 38 before he abandoned his law practice to attempt a career in sports. This ferociously ambitious reporter, analyst, interviewer and play-by-play man, with his near photographic memory, nasal voice, staccato delivery and large and frequently preposterous vocabulary, prided himself on “telling it like it is.” At his peak, Cosell was everywhere on radio and TV, covering baseball, boxing and the Olympics, producing documentaries, penetrating deeper into the popular culture with sitcom appearances and movie roles. He announced to the world the assassination of John Lennon, presided over signal ’70s events like the tennis “Battle of the Sexes,” briefly hosted a prime-time variety show and even flirted with running for the Senate. From two platforms, especially, his ringside and reportorial coverage—and courageous defense—of the career of Muhammad Ali and his perch in the tumultuous Monday Night Football booth, Cosell colorfully demonstrated his capacity to hype and eventually overpower the events he covered. Contemptuous of sportswriters (they returned the hate), dismissive of colleagues and bosses—mediocrities, he called them—he attributed every slight to anti-Semitism or jealousy and ended up alienating even his stoutest friends and defenders, with the exception of his devoted and long-suffering wife. Ribowsky (Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations, 2010, etc.) attributes Cosell’s arrogance to a deep insecurity and an insatiable desire for acclaim. As he aged, “Humble Howard” descended into drink, cruelty and caricature, bitter at having wasted his talents in the “intellectual thimble” of sports.
The definitive word on a loved, loathed, maddeningly complex broadcasting legend.