Howard Cosell: Over 25 Years Later, His Words Still Ring True

 At the age of 67, iconic sports broadcaster Howard Cosell wrote his third book, this time with Peter Bonventre, titled I Never Played the Game.

Published in 1985, the book featured Cosell's keen observations and honest opinions about the state of professional sports at that time. The release of this book ultimately cost Cosell his job at ABC Sports.

Included here are two brief sections from that book published by William Morrow & Co, Inc, edited slightly for space with the original emphasis included. 

Imagine what Cosell would have written about the world of professional sports circa 2010....


From Howard Cosell's I Never Played the Game, pages 13-16:

I am writing this book because I am convinced that sports are out of whack in the American society; that the emphasis placed upon sports distorts the real values of life and often produces mass behavior patterns that are downright frightening; and that the frequently touted uplifting benefits of sports have become a murky blur in the morass of hypocrisy and contradiction that I call the Sports Syndrome.

I did not always feel this way...

In the beginning, like most people in America, I had romantic ideas about sports. I found beauty in the contests, and I really believed that the public needed the surcease that spectator sports provided from the daily travail of life. But the past fifteen years have developed vast changes in my thinking and have caused me to reach the conclusion set forth at the top of this prologue.

In that time, I have walked away from professional boxing, and I have come to have grave doubts about amateur boxing. I have walked away from professional football because of family pressures and because I no longer believed morally or ethically in the actions of the National Football League. By doing this, I gave up, literally, millions of dollars, and yet I suffered tremendous vilification in print for my action.

In that time, I came to realize, however reluctantly, that there was an inexorable force working against revelations of truth about sports in America. That force exists in the form of an unholy alliance between the three television networks and the sports print medium. It is the fundamental purpose of both, for their own reasons, to exalt sports, to regale the games, the fights, the races, whatever, to the point where these contests are indoctrinated into the public mind as virtual religious rituals.

Only rarely does one ever read or hear about how sports in the current era inextricably intertwine with the law, the politics, the sociology, the education, and the medical care of society. It is common practice now for sports franchise owners to rip off great cities in financial distress either by franchise removal or threat of franchise removal. I have seen emphasis upon sports corrupt our higher educational process, and to at least some degree, our secondary educational system….

I have observed the disgusting extent to which television will go in order to get a rating….I have covered the development of labor unions in sports, lockouts in sports, special-purpose legislation passed by the Congress for sports. And I have seen the birth of a curious new stratum in society, which Robert Lipsyte brilliantly entitled “the Jockocracy.”…

The world of sports today is endlessly complex, an ever-spinning spiral of deceit, immorality, absence of ethics, and defiance of the public interest. Yet, somewhere within all that, there continues to lurk the valid notion that there is good in sports and that the games themselves provide a necessary respite from the ills and frustrations of life itself.

It is in that latter notion that the bulk of the American public believes, although the number of such believers decreases almost daily. They believe as they do because they have been taught to do so virtually from birth. They are taught in their homes and by the sports media people….

We are taught a series of postulates, each of which can serve as a natural concomitant for any of the others, and which, in totality, constitute the Sports Syndrome. They are:

1. The game is sacrosanct—a physical and almost religious ritual of beauty and art.

2. Only those who have played the game can understand and communicate its beauty.

3. All athletes are heroes, to the point where some are cast as surrogate parents in the American home.

4. Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing! (Something Vincent T. Lombardi never said!)

5. Sport is Camelot. It is not a place for truth—only for escape, for refuge from life.

6. The fan is sacred, even as sports are. He pays the freight, thus he is an entitled being. The media people tell him this every day. Therefore, once within the arena, his emotions whetted by the Sports Syndrome, the fan adopts what John Stewart Mill found to be the classic confusion in the American thought process, the confusion between Liberty and License—a natural and probable consequence of which is fan violence.

….The essential point is that sports are no longer fun and games, that they are everywhere—in people’s minds, in conversation, in the importance we attach to it—and that they can affect the basics of our lives (to wit, the part of our taxes that may be directed to supporting a sports franchise, without our ever knowing it). Once I bought the Jimmy Cannon dictum that “Sports is the Toy Department of life.” I don’t now and never will again.

The task then, as I see it, is to get a fix on sports and put it in its place, in balance with the mainstream of life, and to dispel romantic ideas about sports—ideas that exist only in a fantasy world.

From I Never Played the Game, pages 131-132, in which Cosell explained why he left ABC's Monday Night Football:


First, the moral problem I had with the NFL. I no longer believed in the league, and I became increasingly disillusioned with what I felt was a deception of the American public. Thanks to Monday Night Football, the NFL took off in the 1970s, becoming the most powerful, prestigious, and glamorous organization in professional sports. At the same time, however, what was happening off the field began to sicken me. As I have related in previous chapters, power eventually corrupted a lot of the owners and the men who run the league. Greed and political chicanery became normal business practices. Their arrogance knew no bounds. They thought they had a license to do exactly as they pleased, particularly with regard to carpetbagging franchises—or threatening to carpetbag franchises if the cities in which they played didn’t come through with bigger stadiums, better tax breaks, and other concessions.

The NFL got away with such outrageous behavior for two reasons: one, its partnership with the three networks; and two, its almost all-encompassing influence over the sportswriters, who could be counted on to parrot the party line. It was disgraceful and I wanted no part of it….

And God forbid you disagreed with them, or criticized them, or as a working journalist exposed their duplicity. They circled the wagons, even tried to discredit you by distorting what you had reported….

If you weren’t a whore for the NFL, then you were a pariah. I wasn’t going to shill for league....

Love him or hate him (that is, if you even remember him), there was never anyone else like Howard Cosell.

The following was sent to me by a fan.  It was taken from "Long Island's Own Newspaper" Newsday dated December 8, 1978, and was attributed to Peter Gent, member of the Dallas Cowboys from 1964-68, and author of the great book North Dallas Forty:

"For there should be a fundamental difference between professional and amateur sports that goes beyond the technical distinction of whether athletes make money from their sport. I learned the difference at the end of training camp my rookie year with the Dallas Cowboys. Management called a meeting to explain the responsibilities of being a professional football player. The man to give the best advice was the team's public relations director. He told us: "Boys, this is show business."

With these words in mind, nothing about professional sports, even Howard Cosell, is mystifying. Professional athletes are first and foremost show business, dealing in illusion and entertainment. The first responsibility of the players is to the audience, not themselves. If the audience wants winners, that is what is given. If it wants losers, that also it will get. The principle is the same for midget wrestling and the National Football League."