Howard William Cosell, born Howard William Cohen was a
well-known and influential sports journalist on American television most
closely associated with Monday
Night Footballand his interviews of Mohammed Ali. His
abrasive personality and tendency to speak his mind, often in erudite
terms unusual for a sportscaster, made him, according to one poll, both
the most-liked and most-hated television reporter in the country.
Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His parents had
wanted him to become a lawyer. After graduating with a bachelor's degree
in English from New York University, he entered that institution's law
school and earned a law degree. During this period, at the request of a
father who had wanted restored the Kozel family name that had been changed
at Ellis Island, he legally altered his surname to Cosell as of 1940.
The NYU product was admitted to the New York state bar in 1941, but
when the US entered World War II, Cosell entered the United States Army
Transportation Corps, where he was promoted to the rank of major. During
his time in the service, he married Mary Abrams in 1944.
After the war, Cosell began practicing law in Manhattan, primarily in
union law. Some of his clients were actors, and some were athletes,
including Willie Mays. Cosell's own hero in athletics was Jackie Robinson,
who served as a personal and professional inspiration to him to his
Cosell also represented the Little League of New York, when in 1953 an
ABC Radio manager asked him to host a show on New York flagship WABC
featuring Little League participants. Cosell hosted the show for three
years without pay, and then decided to leave the law field to become a
full-time broadcaster. The show marked the beginning of a relationship
with WABC and ABC Radio that would last Cosell his entire broadcasting
On radio, Cosell did his show, Speaking of Sports, as well as
sports reports and updates for affiliated radio stations around the
country; he continued his radio duties even after he became prominent on
television. Cosell then became a sports anchor at WABC-TV in New York,
where he served in that role from 1961 to 1974.
Cosell rose to prominence covering boxer Muhammad Ali, starting when he
still fought under his birth name, Cassius Clay. The two seemed to be
friends despite their very different personalities, and complimented each
other in broadcasts. In a time when many sports broadcasters avoided
touching social, racial, or other controversial issues, and kept a certain
level of collegiality towards the sports figures they commented on, Cosell
did not, and indeed built a reputation around his catchphrase: "I'm
just telling it like it is."
Cosell earned his greatest enmity from the public when he backed Ali
after the boxer's championship title was stripped from him for refusing
military service during the Vietnam War. Cosell found vindication several
years later when he was the one able to inform Ali that the United States
Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in favor of Ali.
Perhaps his most famous call took place in the fight between Joe
Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. When Foreman knocked
Frazier to the mat, Cosell yelled out "Down Goes Frazier, Down Goes
Frazier, Down Goes Frazier." This became one of the most famous lines
in sports history.
In 1970, American Broadcasting Company executive producer for sports
Roone Arledge hired Cosell to be a commentator for Monday
Night Football, the first time that American football was
broadcast in prime time. Cosell was accompanied most of the time by
ex-football players Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.
Along with Monday Night Football, Cosell worked the Olympics for
ABC. He played a key role on ABC's coverage of the terror attacks on the
Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972, reporting from the Olympic village. In
Montreal in 1976, Cosell was the main voice for boxing. He announced the
gold medal victory of Sugar Ray Leonard.
Cosell's colorful personality and distinctive nasal voice were featured
to fine comic effect in a sports-themed episode of the ABC
TV series The
Odd Couple, as well as in the Woody Allen film Bananas.
Such was his renown that while he never appeared on the show, Cosell's
name was frequently used as an all-purpose answer on the game show Match
Cosell's national fame was further boosted in the fall of 1975 when Saturday
Night Live with Howard Cosell aired late Saturday nights on ABC.
The show was similar in many ways to a show NBC had launched, NBC's
Saturday Night, which would later become the far more well-known Saturday
Night Live. Despite bringing a young comedian, Billy Crystal, to
national prominence, the show was cancelled after three months.
Beginning in 1976, Cosell hosted the series of specials known as Battle
of the Network Stars. The two-hour specials pitted stars from each of
the three broadcast networks against each other in various physical and
mental competitions. Cosell hosted all but one of the nineteen specials,
including the final one airing in 1988.
At 11:30 PM on December 8, 1980, Cosell stunned millions by announcing
the murder of 40-year old former Beatles member John Lennon live while
performing his regular commentating duties on Monday
Cosell denounced professional boxing in 1982 after a brutal, one-sided
fight between Larry Holmes and Randall "Tex" Cobb.
Cosell drew criticism during one Monday
Night Football telecast in September 1983, for calling a wide
receiver for the Washington Redskins, Alvin Garrett, a "little
monkey." While some saw the term as having a racial connotation, many
who knew Cosell were quick to point out that he used this term routinely
in an approving way to describe quicker, smaller players of all
ethnicities. Among the evidence to support this claim is video footage of
a 1972 preseason game, between the New York Giants and the Kansas City
Chiefs, that features Cosell referring to Mike Adamle, a 5-foot-9-inch,
197-pound Caucasian, as a "little monkey", though they certainly
had to dig deep into the archives to find an example.
Perhaps due to the strain of this controversy, Cosell left Monday
Night Football shortly before the start of the 1984 NFL season,
claiming that the NFL had "become a stagnant bore." His duties
were then reduced to only baseball, horse racing, and a sports news
program called Sportsbeat.
After writing the book I Never Played The Game, which chronicled
his disenchantment with fellow commentators on Monday
Night Football, among other things, he was taken off scheduled
announcing duties for the 1985 World Series and was released by ABC
television shortly thereafter. In his latter years, Cosell briefly hosted
his own television talk show, Speaking of Everything, authored his
last book What's Wrong With Sports, and continued to appear on
radio and television, becoming more outspoken about his criticisms of
sports in general.
After his wife of 46 years, Mary Edith Abrams Cosell, known as
"Emmy", died in the fall of 1990, Cosell appeared in public less
and less until his passing away from a heart embolism in 1995, possibly
related to the cancer he had been battling in recent years, at the age of
77 at his home in New York City. He was survived by 2 daughters and 5
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