Howard Cosell - Broken Ties
During the 1980s, Cosell's strong opinions eroded his presence on television. In 1982 he decided on the air that he would no longer announce boxing matches, while he watched Larry Holmes pulverize Randall "Tex" Cobb in a heavyweight title fight. Suddenly appalled by professional boxing's viciousness, he would later call for an end to the sport altogether. In 1984, he made an equally dramatic departure from Monday Night Football, calling it a "stagnant bore." This decision followed complaints about Cosell saying "look at that little monkey run" to describe black receiver Alvin Garrett in a Washington Redskins game. The remark was condemned as racist, despite Cosell's long record of supporting black athletes and the fact that he had previously used the same words regarding white players. Cosell created the sports newsmagazine Sportsbeat in 1985, which opened to strong reviews. The show was cancelled after just three months when Cosell released his autobiography, I Never Played the Game, a volume filled with negative appraisals of his ABC colleagues. He would never work in television again.
The rupture with ABC television left Cosell doing interviews and commentary on the radio. He was exceedingly bitter and, already reputed to be a heavy drinker, was said to be turning more frequently to alcohol. Sports writer Frank Deford suggested in People that Cosell did not sour until, after fifty-four years of marriage, his wife Emmy died in 1990. Emmy has been described as the one person to whom Howard would listen and, at home with their daughters Jill and Hilary, he was said to have been a different man, quiet and kind. In his book Cosell, he once wrote, "Emmy's my life.… I go nowhere without her. I wouldn't do 'Monday Night Football,' I wouldn't travel, I wouldn't cross the Triboro Bridge without Emmy." Both, his own health and his career faltered in her absence. A year after Emmy's death, Cosell had a cancerous tumor surgically removed from his chest and in 1992 he retired from broadcasting. His few remaining years were spent in near isolation.
Howard Cosell was seventy-seven when he died of a heart embolism at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan on April 23, 1995. His death was met with an odd mix of responses, comprising both testimonies to his tremendous impact and a decided lack of emotion. William Nack noted in Sports Illustrated, "None inspired a sense of ambivalence that ran quite as deep and powerful as did Howard Cosell, in life and in death, and this was nowhere more evident than in the eulogies served up on Sunday with a side of ice." He described Roone Arledge as being without emotion when he said, "Howard Cosell was one of the most original people to appear on American television.… He became a giant by telling the truth in an industry that was not used to hearing it and considered it revolutionary." An obituary writer for The Economist looked for Cosell's place in history and noted that "Mr Cosell's decline owed something to an early skirmish in the political-correctness wars," referring to his comment about Alvin Garrett. The writer concluded, "Probably, there will never be another sportscaster like him: not because he symbolized a bygone era, but because he was himself such an extraordinary human being. He was a genius, a braggart, a cynic and a boor. And if few tears were shed at his death, he will be missed just the same." A rare, warm comment came from filmmaker Woody Allen, who featured Cosell in several of his productions. He said in Entertainment Weekly, "He was in a class by himself as a sportscaster … with an urgent voice, wit, and first-rate intelligence. And most importantly, he was his own man."
During the decade after Cosell's death several film projects reflected the high drama of Cosell's life. The HBO documentary Howard Cosell: Telling it Like It Is was both a tribute and an exploration of his great contradictions. The film detailed the kinds of discrimination that Cosell faced as a Jew during his childhood and television career. Interviews include Cosell's children, Muhammad Ali, comedian Billy Crystal, and colleagues from ABC televsion. Notably, sportscasters Frank Gifford and Al Michaels still had positive comments to make about Cosell despite his harsh treatment of them in his autobiography. As portrayed by actor Jon Voight, he was an important figure in the motion picture Ali (2001). Soon thereafter, TNT's cable-television movie Monday Night Mayhem (2002) was dominated by Cosell's presence as recreated by John Turturro. According to Dave Kindred in the Sporting News, the film proved that Cosell was "still news" seven years after his death. While the film is ostensibly about the larger issue of creating Monday Night Football, Kindred suggested that the film "succeeds because it gives us a Howard Cosell so complex as to be respected and despised, deplored and admired. Just as in life."
Time will tell how long Howard Cosell's notoriety will survive beyond living memory. He has been much imitated for comic effect but rarely emulated. When Bruce Newman reviewed Cosell's career in Sports Illustrated shortly before his death, he noted, "when Cosell decided to leave the broadcast booth after 38 years, he was still the only one doing whatever it was he did." Sportscaster Keith Olbermann would later echo this sentiment when he said in the Sporting News, "There have been doors opened, but we have not followed in Howard's lead.… We have not been the provocateurs … not been the journalists that Howard demanded we should be."
Cosell's quotes and videotaped television appearances still shock, still interest, and still entertain. If he remains unchallenged as the most daring and outrageous of sportscasters, he has nevertheless set the standard for that title.