Monday, February 27, 2012


It's rather surprising that we haven't gotten a definitive biography of Cosell until now. Sports books trumpeting "The Best X Ever," "The Last Real Y," and "The Game that Changed Z Forever" seem to be a dime a dozen, and the titles of the vast majority of them punch far above their actual weight (to use a boxing metaphor that I think is fitting in this case). But Cosell really was a transformational figure. As author Ribowsky notes in this even-handed, frequently compelling book, the world of sports journalism could probably use someone with Cosell's outspokenness (as opposed to "mere" loudmouthedness) right about now. That someone, however, would best be advised to ditch the comically oversized ego as an optional accessory.

Cosell clearly had many positive attributes, such as a willingness to fight for the underdog and a strong loyalty to his family, but he is a classic example of someone who ultimately became a parody of himself. I remember watching the last fight broadcast he did, the 1982 heavyweight mismatch between Larry Holmes and Randall "Tex" Cobb, which would be mercifully forgotten today were it not for Cosell's steady hectoring of the referee and "the boxing world" in general for letting the fight drag on to the finish. In this instance, Cosell ceased to be a truth-teller and became simply an irritating scold. The "comical" bickering in the booth of Monday Night Football (which, as is now well known, papered over some extremely hard feelings and jealousies among the principals) followed a similar downward trajectory. Cosell's "using" of people for name-dropping purposes (Ribowsky describes this as "people collecting," a la Professor Horace Slughorn, but with a nastier edge), hypersensitive anti-anti-Semitism, drinking problems, and general obnoxiousness served to ensure that, when he gave his enemies swords with which to run him through (e.g. the infamous "little monkey" comment on MNF), the wounds they inflicted upon him would last far beyond their "heal-by" dates. Even so, there is something truly sad about his disintegration and withdrawal from the wider world following the death of his beloved wife. What price fame -- or infamy?

Ribowsky does a good job of covering the well-known high points of Cosell's career -- MNF, his long relationship with Muhammad Ali -- and manages to make Cosell a sympathetic figure even while playing up his many flaws. The short and decidedly unhappy story of Cosell's 1975 prime-time variety show (!) Saturday Night Live (!!!!) is unquestionably the funniest part of a read that, due to the serious issues with which Cosell was involved and his marked genius for ticking people off, is somewhat more dour than those seeking a gay romp through the funky late-60s and 70s might expect. Highly recommended for those who seek enlightenment as to why the guy with the bad toupee and big vocabulary was such a big deal back in the day, as well as those who witnessed the blow-by-blow themselves.

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