Feature

Book of the week: Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports by Mark Ribowsky

Ribowsky has written a “vivid” biography of a sportscaster who was so divisive that he once won both most-loved and most-loathed television personality in the same poll.

(Norton, $30)

How could it be that “a human spectacle as unique as Howard Cosell” has already been widely forgotten? said Richard Sandomir in The New York Times. With his “adenoidal Brooklyn voice, polysyllabic vocabulary, and vulpine presence,” the late sportscaster was the dominant personality in his field for 20 years, at a time when holding a network throne meant something. He was “loud, audacious, obnoxious, perspicacious, brilliant, narcissistic, provocative, and haughty”—qualities that both lifted him to prominence and contributed to his downfall. For those who remember hearing him, Cosell’s slowly enunciated signature sign-off—“This is HOW-id Cyo-SELL”—will be ringing in their ears as they flip through the pages of Mark Ribowsky’s “vivid,” if sometimes overexcited, biography.

Was there anyone who didn’t do an impression of that voice in the 1970s? asked Gene Warner in The Buffalo News. Ribowsky’s “nuanced and complex” portrait accurately captures a man so divisive that he once won both most-loved and most-loathed television personality in the same poll. He certainly wasn’t afraid to irritate audiences. A Manhattan lawyer before making the unlikely career jump into sports broadcasting, he rose to national prominence in the 1960s thanks largely to his on-air rapport with Muhammad Ali, who, when he adopted his Muslim name, had few defenders in broadcasting besides Cosell. Later, as part of the first team to host Monday Night Football, Cosell won the enmity of NFL fans by using 50-cent words to deride players—playing black hat/white hat with his affable co-host, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith.

“Even if you loathed him, Cosell’s performance was what made Monday nights memorable,” said David Remnick in The New Yorker. But as Ribowsky points out, Cosell was also a real journalist, a “blunt questioner” who used his sports beat to address the more pressing issues of the day. In the early ’80s, the suits at ABC gave Cosell the boot after finally tiring of his self-aggrandizing and habit of drinking on the job. Ribowsky’s biography, which follows the story to its sad end, is too loaded with florid prose to be called a great book. But it does remind us that Cosell was a singular figure. These days, “it’s nearly impossible to imagine someone on the air who is, at once, an impresario, a circus barker, an analyst, and a serious journalist.” Cosell is the only one who has managed the feat, and he’s “never been replaced.”

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