Monday, June 9, 2014

"Whart's Wrong with Sports," by Howard Cosell

In a postscript, Cosell writes that three days after turning in this manuscript in November of 1990, his beloved wife Emmy died suddenly of a heart attack. It is well-known that after that Cosell deteriorated rapidly, becoming a virtual recluse in his last years. This book, then, is the final account of his views on the sports world.

The book is as honest and hard-hitting as his other three books. Big-time college sports comes in for a lot of criticism. I am reminded of a recent quote, when the Ohio State University president was asked if he planned to fire football coach Jim Tressel. The president's response" "I just hope Jim Tressel doesn't fire me!" This, as much as anything, illustrates the "tail wagging the dog" situation which exists in big-time college sports. Cosell is right on the money on this issue.

As usual, he derides the so-called "jockocracy" in sports broadcasting. I was surprised and dismayed to see Tim McCarver come in for heavy criticism. I see Tim as an outstanding baseball broadcaster, one who always makes the game more interesting and points out intricacies which the average fan would miss. However, Cosell says that "Tim McCarver is unbearable. He's got that whiny voice. He talks incessantly about totally irrelevant things." 

One wonders if Cosell ever bothered to actually listen to a McCarver broadcast. Also, it is apparent from his prior books that Cosell doesn't really like baseball, hence his inability to appreciate a great baseball announcer. It is said that "baseball is only dull to dull minds", and when it comes to baseball, Cosell's mind was as dull as can be.

Cosell deals with drugs, sexual misconduct, gambling, and other negative aspects of modern-day sports. These are all flimsy straw men, representing actions which no reasonable person would condone.

Cosell does offer pertinent comments about the NFL, an organization which he grew to detest in his later years. He documents how the NFL has lost anti-trust cases every time it has gone to trial, beginning in the 1950's with the Bill Radovich case. Later cases lost by the NFL include suits by Joe Kapp (1974), Cullen Bryant (1975), John Mackey, Ron Alexander, and James McCoy Smith. Th fact is that the NFL has been in gross violation of anti-trust laws for decades, and nobody but Cosell has had the courage to speak out against this. For this he deserves great credit.

It is certainly well-known that in his later years Cosell soured on both of his favorite sports, boxing and football. Yet, I was surprised to see him say that the only sport he misses is horse racing. He states that "racing is an honest sport", and that the greatest athlete in his time was Secretariat. 

One wonders what Cosell's comments about horse racing would be today, following the harsh remarks made by California Chrome's owner after his horse's defeat in the Belmont. The owner called the other owners "cowards" and "cheaters" and, based on my following of the Triple Crown races for many years, I would have to say that the failure of any horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978, after twelve horses have gone into the Belmont with a chance, shows pretty clearly that the deck is stacked against any Triple Crown winner ever again appearing. For horses to run three grueling races in a five-week span can fairly be called animal abuse, in my humble opinion. And Chrome's owner is correct in saying that it is unfair for horses to sit out other races and then sabotage a potential Triple Crown winner in the last race.

There is not much really new in this book, other than comments on recent (pre-1991) events such as the Pete Rose banishment from baseball, and the Dave Winfield/George Steinbrenner fiasco. And on these issues Cosell has an obvious bias, one he really does not attempt to disguise, because of his friendships with Bart Giamatti and George Steinbrenner. Because most of this book is a rehash of his other books, I can only give it three stars out of five. However, if the reader doesn't know much about Cosell and wants to read one book to learn what he was all about, this book would not be a bad choice.

4/6/17 update. I recently reread this book and have some fresh thoughts. It is interesting how often Cosell comments on Donald Trump's involvement in sports. Cosell says that it was Trump who was mainly responsible for the USFL "losing" its antitrust case to the NFL ("losing" in the sense that the damages were set at only one dollar). He says it was obvious Trump was angling for an NFL franchise, and his involvement in the USFL was only a means to that end. However, the NFL was never going to let him in, and MLB was especially never going to let him in, due to his heavy involvement with gambling.

Trump's involvement with the sleazier side of boxing is also documented. All in all, Trump comes across as a really bad actor, and it is remarkable that the US has elected him its president, when the major sports leagues all had the good sense to keep him out!

To the extent that this book is an improvement on his other books, it is because Cosell, the ex-lawyer, comments intelligently on legal issues like the NFL's monopoly, and Pete Rose's involvement with gambling.  Indeed, Cosell's testimony is said to have been the high point of the USFL's ant-trust trial against the NFL. 

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