Watch TV sports long enough and you’ll reach that point in life when you know they’re no longer selling the beer to you. It’s that midlife slide off advertisers’ demographic radar that you’re feeling. Nothing you can do about it and no reason, really, to feel any remorse. At least now, if you’re no longer within that golden 18-to-35 age range, you can retain some pride in knowing that your life intersected with a glorious, audacious era of televised sporting events when the channels were fewer, special events lived up to the hype and someone like Howard Cosell actually existed.
Try explaining to twentysomethings who Cosell was and why he mattered. They can relate only to a global village of 24/7 sports stretched like pizza dough along dozens of cable channels, websites and “talk radio” stations. In a heyday that roughly ran from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Cosell was practically alone as a motormouthed churl of electronic sports journalism. Now the airwaves are saturated with know-it-alls trying to surpass one another in amplified outrage. But however much they may spritz and kvetch about salary caps, steroids and jock etiquette, the professional grumps now embedded in what sportswriter Robert Lipsyte indelibly labeled “SportsWorld” must know deep down that Cosell invented them all, that they flourish today, for better and worse, because of a labor lawyer from Brooklyn who, despite a grating nasal twang, a pouchy face tailor-made (as the wags like to say) for radio and a toupee that even Richard Pryor couldn’t resist milking for cheap laughs, brandished the kind of flash-point notoriety usually claimed by renegade rock stars. He was huckster and muckraker, malcontent and cheerleader, iconoclast and show horse, provocateur and carnival barker. With such contradictions in play, it’s little wonder that Cosell was found by some public polls to be America’s most beloved and most hated sports broadcaster. Even sports fans predisposed to Cosell’s patented cocktail of awe and incredulity could get exasperated enough with him to declare, as Wilfrid Sheed once did, that “the story of Howard Cosell is basically the history of a nervous system.”
Still, eleven years after Cosell’s death, you would figure enough time has passed to smooth over some of the animosity he aroused in his lifetime and allow a measured assessment of his thorny legacy. Sportswriter Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship meets this task at least halfway by placing Cosell’s life story in context with the biggest ongoing story of his–or anyone else’s–career: Muhammad Ali. Both Ali and Cosell came into prominence at roughly the same time–and at the right time for both. The 1960s seemed created for brash, outsized personalities such as theirs to prosper and flourish. By the time the decade was over, the charismatic, charming, loquacious boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay was the Most Famous Man in the World. And Cosell, described in his salad days by his future boss, ABC sports president Roone Arledge, as a “strange creature who’d wandered the nation’s locker rooms with a thirty-pound tape recorder strapped to his back, interviewing anyone who’d talk to him,” had become Humble Howard, designated gadfly of ABC’s Monday Night Football and culture hero (or villain) for publicly supporting Ali’s right to retain the heavyweight championship stripped from him because of the fighter’s refusal to report to the Army for induction in the midst of the Vietnam War.