Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sports journalism now and then

I'm almost at the end of Dave Kindred's book Sound and Fury, which I got for Christmas but am just finishing off now. It's very interesting. First of all, it's interesting in format--it's a double biography of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. It makes sense, of course; it's virtually impossible to think of one of them without the other, and their careers followed similar paths: they were new and revolutionary in their own ways in the '60s, peaked and overexposed in the '70s and brought back to earth quickly (and, in may ways, sadly) in the '80s.

I'm enjoying the Ali portions, of course. I feel like I know a lot about him already, but Kindred portrays Ali as fearful of Elijah Muhammad and naive on many different points through his life. Kindred also foregrounds the intense diminution of skills over the four years he lost when his title was stripped--the Ali who won the title for the first time was "The Greatest," and the Ali who won it a second and third time not nearly as good a fighter.

But the Cosell chapters have me really thinking about sports journalism.

I only became cognizant of Cosell as he slid down the downhill side of his career. I began watching Monday Night Football as soon as I was old enough to stay up that late--1980 or so--so I only really saw the last four years of Cosell's career at MNF, and wasn't old enough to see the bitterness that Kindred describes.

Kindred also describes how Cosell felt wasted in sports, and felt that a man of his seriousness needed to be doing something more important. He even suggested that he should replace Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters as the anchor for ABC News. (Seriously, could you even imagine that? Who on earth would tune in to Cosell over Cronkite?)

And yet, when 90% of life is showing up, Cosell did some very important work not just in sports (by speaking out against boxing's brutality in the middle 1980s) but even in subtler ways, for US race relations (by calling Ali by his Muslim name when few did and by giving a fair on-air hearing to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to name two examples).

The problem, of course, was the packaging. Cosell's voice and arrogance could make me want to shy away from him even when he was correct. Still, I appreciate him stepping in there.

Does Cosell have a modern equivalent?

I'd say he does in Bob Costas. I like Costas a lot more than I ever liked Cosell. But there are far more similarities than differences between the two: their frequent grappling with big issues, their expansion to the worlds outside of sports (Costas far more successfully than Cosell), their undoubted places at the peaks of sportscasting leading to something more that never quite overshadowed their association with sports.

If the next Muhammad Ali came along, would current sportscasters be as supportive as Cosell was? I'd like to think Costas would, but I know nothing about his politics--the only issues I know are his views on the wild card and the DH (both of which I agree with, by the way). The point is, however, that I think that Costas sees and understands not only sports' cultural importance, but their transcendence. In fact, I think he understands it better...I can't picture Costas badmouthing being a "mere" sports reporter as Cosell did.

I don't think anybody else could do it as well, and I think it's because of the saturation of sports on cable and on the radio. Sports can -become- the 24/7 world for anyone who wants them to be.

I'll have more on this, later today. The book also has me thinking of what happens when sports and the real world collide on live TV, and what that can/should/does look like.

Geez. It's 1:30 AM. Summer brings out my night owl, even on days when I get up early.

1 comment:

Shannin said...

I love Bob Costas. I think he is very intelligent and can speak on a variety of issues, not just sports. I'll have to get the book for Don to get his insight into how sports journalism has changed over the years.