Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Howard Cosell

I am old enough to remember when, in the mid-1950's, Howard Cosell gave up his job as a successful New York lawyer and began his radio show, "Speaking of Sports". At the time he seemed like a breath of fresh air, trying hard to bring some real journalism to the world of sports. Prior to Cosell, "sports journalism" was an oxymoron, as there was no effort among reporters to be objective and avoid hero worship of the athletes they covered. Cosell later switched to television, and when ABC landed the "Monday Night Football" contract, Cosell was instrumental in making MNF the insitution it became.

Cosell had a running feud with the print reporters, and in fact the title of his third book, "I Never Played the Game", comes from the frequent criticism leveled at Cosell by the writers that he didn't understand sports because "he never played the game". When this book came out in 1985, Cosell was already in a steep downhill slide toward irrelevancy. He had become completely disenchanted with his favorite sports, boxing and football, for reasons he details in the book. In 1982 he announced he would never cover another boxing match because of boxing's inherent brutality, and in 1983 he left Monday Night Football, saying the games all looked the same to him.

As ABC had acquired rights to some major league games, Cosell switched to baseball and was part of ABC's world series announcing team in 1979, 1981, and 1983. I watched those telecasts and Cosell was just awful. He had no feel for baseball, and in his first two books he had made it abundantly clear that he thought baseball was boring and worthless, destroying any credibility he might otherwise have had as a baseball announcer. Mercifully to viewers, ABC took him off baseball in 1985 after this book came out, and replaced him with Tim McCarver, a wonderful announcer who has since become a superstar and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame for his great broadcasting.

Cosell's shtick was that he felt that "what happened on the field" was not all that interesting. Rather, he prided himself on getting the "stories behind the stories", i.e., talking about what was going on in the players' lives. How ironic, then, that his replacement, Tim McCarver, along with Tim's longtime broadcast partner Joe Buck, has shown us that what happens on the field can be terrible interesting. There is a saying that "baseball is only dull to dull minds", and by his brilliant success McCarver has demonstrated the truth of this aphorism, and the falsity of Cosell’s position.

Also ironic is that Tim McCarver, as an ex-player, was part of the so-called "jockocracy" that Cosell always railed against; Cosell felt that broadcasting jobs should go to people with journalism training, rather than to ex-jocks. McCarver's success shows the shallowness of this strongly-held belief by Cosell.

I recall an interview with Barbara Walters that Cosell did toward the end of his life. Barbara asked him "How do you want to be remembered." Cosell answered, "That's easy, as a good husband, a good father, and a good grandfather." Barbara: "Nothing about career". Cosell: "No, it's not important."

This odd statement really seems contradictory to all the pompous pronouncements Cosell made during his career about how important what he was doing was for the development of sports journalism. If what he was doing was ultimately unimportant, then why did he make such a big fuss about it?

Cosell died in 1995, a recluse during his last years, which seems odd for a person who always prided himself on what a close relationship he had, or at least claimed to have, with some of the people he covered. Sadly, he seems to have revealed himself in his later years to be a complete fraud. One suspects he would have been happier in life had he stuck with his original choice of profession.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Different Kind of Mandatory Sentencing

The numerous mandatory sentencing laws, under which judges have no flexibility in sentencing defendants, have caused the prison population in the US to balloon to seven times what it was in 1980, so that now the US imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than every other country in the world. Judges hate these mandatory sentencing laws, because it ties their hands, and a fair number of judges have resigned in protest at the injustices they are required to perpetrate. A common example is the girlfriend of a drug dealer, who gets decades in prison along with her boyfriend, even though her involvement in his criminal enterprise was minimal, or tangential, or perhaps even coerced.

One problem mandatory sentencing has caused is the  high cost of this ridiculous level of incarceration. In California it is estimated that it costs $70,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. The Ohio legislature has taken a novel approach to reducing the runaway cost of all this incarceration. A year ago a new law was enacted which *prohibits* judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison, when the offense is a low-level felony. As a result, the prison population has already shrunk to the 2007 level.

I sometimes think that whenever a judge sentences a defendant to prison, that judge should be required to give a statement setting out the projected cost to the state of the incarceration. It seems absurd for judges to be able to incur, on behalf of the state, these tremendous costs, with no accountability or consequence. When a judge runs for re-election, the burden his sentencing decisions have placed on the state could then be part of the public record, just like all other government financial information already is public record. Maybe then this "tough on crime" mantra that we constantly hear from candidates could properly be interpreted as "tough on taxpayers' pocketbooks".