Howard Cosell was fond of saying that American television in the 1970s was dominated by three C’s, representing each of the broadcast networks: revered CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, NBC’s late-night talk show host Johnny Carson, and Cosell himself, the marquee sports announcer for the ABC network. Cosell was known for an inflated sense of self-importance, but in this claim he was accurate. From his interviews of Muhammad Ali on Wide World of Sports in the Sixties, through his 13-year tenure in the broadcast booth of Monday Night Football, Cosell came to be the most prominent personality in sports television and one of the most recognizable figures—certainly, the most recognized voice—in all of American popular culture.
Throughout his career, Cosell aspired to be more like the trusted journalist Cronkite than the entertainer Carson. And one of the main points of historian John Bloom’s biography, There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), is that Cosell was an innovative, probing, and fearless reporter. Cosell defended Ali when the boxer was stripped of his heavyweight title. He spoke on behalf of Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they were sent home after their protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. And he denounced boxing and refused to work in the sport again, after announcing the horribly one-sided Holmes-Cobb championship fight in 1982.
At the same time, Cosell recognized that sports was entertainment. He played his role for laughs in the Woody Allen film Bananas and on the made-for-TV “athletic competitions” of lesser actors and actresses. But as his fame peaked, Cosell’s stated opinion of sports turned sharply and dismissively critical. The broadcaster always felt himself an outsider in the world of sports, a characteristic that Bloom attributes to Cosell’s Jewish background. And as a trained attorney, Cosell felt himself intellectually superior to the jocks and shills, as he called them. He gained wealth and fame through sports, but he came to see himself as bigger than sports. In that sense, Cosell can be seen not only as a legendary figure, but also as a tragic one.