I Never Played the Game, Howard Cosell with Peter Bonaventure. ISBN 0-380-70159-6 (978-0380701599). New York: Avon Books, 1985. Also available in hardback (ISBN 978-0688044817) and large print paperback (ISBN 978-0816141111). Contains a table of contents but no index.
I just realized that I have been reading many books that are fairly old. This one falls into that category, having been originally published in 1985. Apparently it takes me a while to catch up on my reading. Some are worth the wait, others less so; this one happens to have been worth it, save for some qualifications.
The title of Howard’s final book is to be taken two ways: he did not play any sports, whether football, baseball, or any other, nor did he box. But it also refers to the fact that he never played the games that you seemingly have to play to get ahead, to get the story, to stay on the air; he didn’t play anyone’s fool, patsy, or schmoe. The book itself is an interesting mix of bitterness, forthright reporting, ego, and prescience.
His bitterness is mostly aimed at those he thought did him wrong, whether TV critics, his boss Roone Arledge, or those sportsmen who were unable to do the things he did but got better ratings, money, what have you. He had significant relationships with many important broadcasting and business people such as Arledge, Carroll Rosenbloom, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, O. J. Simpson, among others. But, in Cosell’s mind, these men (with the exception of Rosenbloom) were all jealous of him and tried to harm him professionally. It’s an open question whether they actually were doing that or if it was in Cosell’s mind. I’m reminded of a Spanish saying: if one person calls you an ass, ignore him. If two people call you an ass, put on a bridle. That so many colleagues took issue with him should have told him something.
His forthright reporting is with regard to the then-current state of different sports, such as boxing and football. He lamented the way that boxing had been promoted, the personalities involved (principally Bob Arum and Don King), and the way the business ran and had changed over time. At the end, Cosell no longer could cover the sport because he found it repugnant, both in business terms but also in human terms. The damage done to people was simply too great and Cosell saw what the repeated beatings had done to people he knew, loved and cared deeply about (such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali). He paid a financial price for refusing to broadcast boxing, but he stood his ground. Football as a business took any enjoyment of the game away from him, not to mention the carpet-bagging teams (like the Rams, Giants and whoever else moved willy-nilly at the time). Reporting on those moves cost him access to important people, even though Cosell’s analysis (on air) of the NFL’s case against teams moving was spot-on.
His ego pervades throughout, mostly in claiming he broke more stories than the other guy, he was a great TV journalist, so on and so forth, he was a wonderful broadcaster; the list is almost interminable. Prescience because of what he saw coming in terms of teams leaving their cities (“carpet-bagger” he called them repeatedly). What he said happened up to and including 1985 is still happening in the NFL today; it was like reading today’s sports page when he talked about what the NFL demands from the home city in return for not leaving. On the other hand, his prediction about the future strength of the NFL was so far off base as to make me wonder whether he understood the NFL business model or the NFL as a business at all.
But the thing is that, with the exception of a couple chapters (like the one on Sugar Ray Leonard), the book was eminently readable, if more than a little dated. He was, perhaps understandably, bitter over his departure from Monday Night Football (MNF) and those parts of the book (since he spent a sizable amount of time with MNF, it’s no small part of the book) wear thin after a while.
On the whole, however, I’d recommend the book to those interested in the personal sentiments of someone who did cover sports well for a very long period of time. A good read with some caveats.