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xi Preface What is the significance of a man like Howard Cosell: a sportscaster, a media figure, a celebrity? In an unpublished oral history interview, Cosell once said that only a few years after his death, nobody would remember who he was, that celebrity is fleeting. In some ways he was right. Many reading this book might have no, or very little, idea who Howard Cosell was. From the outset, then, I want to tell those readers the story of Howard Cosell, a very unlikely person to have become one of the biggest media figures of his time. For those who remember Cosell, I want to remind them about a sportscaster who was a product of his times, whose intellect and political commitment made him a unique celebrity, and who became one of the principal public figures who helped define his era. This is a biography of Howard Cosell, but even more than that, it is a critical biography. It seeks to show why Cosell rose to fame, and how historical trends and conditions allowed for such an unlikely figure to develop into one of the most widely recognized people of his generation. What did Cosell mean to people? Why and how did he resonate with audiences? Cosell’s ethnic identity is central to this book. To put it more directly , Cosell was Jewish. Even though he almost never mentioned this on the air, it was a core aspect of his expressive public personality , mentioned often in print if not over the air. In addition to his being Jewish, Cosell’s career was marked in large part by his relationships with African Americans. From an early point in his career, when he presided over the production of a documentary about the Grambling College football team in the early 1960s, to his support for Jackie Robinson, to his defense of baseball player Curt Flood (who sought to fight the game’s “reserve clause”), to his defense of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who registered their protest against the U.S. government from the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, to his highly publicized defense of Muhammad Ali, Cosell championed the causes of African American athletes who asserted themselves forcefully in public debates. xii In addition to issues surrounding ethnicity, Cosell was distinctive in the way he publicly expressed an overarching critique of the very medium that employed him. I call this the “Cosell critique.” Cosell routinely expressed this critique when he would succinctly label the practitioners of his profession, and the networks that employed them, as shills. Shill was the perfect word for Cosell to use. It describes a person who is secretly paid to voice enthusiasm for something being sold. Shills receive compensation for looking honest and sincere while actually having put their integrity up for sale. Although Cosell would use this term with increasing frequency toward the end of his life, throughout his career he saw sports institutions and broadcasters in an “unholy alliance” with each other. He sharply criticized the fact that networks were clients of sports institutions yet were also charged with covering sporting events objectively. As revealing as Cosell’s identities, principles, and political stands were, this book is also about the cultural contradictions that he embodied , which were equally revealing of the times in which he lived. He was a product of Jewish Brooklyn who could not hide his ethnicity or background, but who downplayed this identity throughout his career. He had a deep fascination with sports and athletes, and risked almost everything that was dear to him for a career in sports broadcasting , but he expressed contempt for individuals and institutions that constituted the sports establishment. He took courageous stands for causes like civil rights without fear of a confrontation, but at other times in his life shied away from controversy. As much as he criticized the relationships between sports and corporate America, he was fiercely loyal to the company that employed him. As much as he was driven by causes of social justice, he also loved fame and the power and wealth it gave him. My book is about these contradictions. The origins of this book go back to my days in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Up until that time I had developed a kind of knee-jerk dislike for Cosell, a reaction rooted in my earliest memories of the man. From the time I was eight years old, whenever I turned on Monday Night...


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