Just When I Thought I Was Out, Racism Pulled Me Back In

Yesterday, I wrote my regular article for a Manchester United online fanzine called Stretty News. The name comes from the famous Stretford End stand behind the west goal, facing the eponymous neighborhood on whose edge United’s home stadium, Old Trafford, sits. If you want to know why the stadium is called Old Trafford, Wiki can help with that. If you want to know why its naming rights haven’t been sold to some corporation despite the club being in the hands of the same American billionaires who own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with their Raymond James (Investment Company) Stadium, well, I haven’t the time to explain Northern English pride in their history or willingness to galvanize to protect its integrity. All I will say is they won’t soon be corporatizing their old castles or national parks.

That historical pride is what inspired me to write this particular article, however. Sky, the sister company to Rupert Murdoch’s American media brand Fox, has decided to bill its regular Monday game as Monday Night Football. Obviously, Mr Murdoch and his lackeys’ only use for history is to exploit its marketing potential by legally plagiarizing a competitor’s well-known brand in a foreign market. With all apparently being fair in business, as well as love and war, I thought it would be apropos, with Manchester United visiting longstanding rivals Liverpool on this Monday Night (or afternoon on this side of the Atlantic) to preview the game as worthy of living up to ABC’s Monday Night Football in its heyday.

Doing so, of course, required explaining Howard Cosell’s influence and unique style. Cosell was unabashedly intelligent and forthright. As he moved through football, baseball, and boxing broadcasts, he used his sizable vocabulary to cut and thrust in the same casually lethal manner as Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow wielded a cutlass while strolling through sequel after sequel of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Inevitably, the old adage, ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ applied to Cosell’s career, when he likened one African-American player to a “little monkey” during a 1983 MNF broadcast. Such soundbites are very difficult to ignore in contemporary society, so, ever the objective journalist, I made note of it in the Stretty News piece. The problem is, I now find myself conflicted over having taken an apologetic tone, as though Cosell did something wrong.

If you don’t know the comment’s full, factual history, you might believe he did utter a racial slur on live television. Hear me out, though.

This was not the first time Cosell applied the phrase during a broadcast. It wasn’t the second or third, either. It was, in fact, the fourth instance for which their remains an archived record.

He originally made the comment in 1972, in reference to Mike Adamle, later an ABC sportscaster himself, but then an undersized running back for the University of Kansas Jayhawks football team. The metaphor was used to describe his quickness and agility in eluding far bigger defenders.

A year later, he would apply the same phrase to Herb Mul-Key, a Pro Bowl kick returner for the Washington Redskins,. Mul-key was black, but was also an undersized player. Cosell’s remark was applied in exactly the same context as it had been for Adamle. At the time, no one was particularly outraged.

At the time, no one would have dared suggest Cosell was racist. It was obvious to the world he was not. While at the height of his celebrity, Cosell branched out from sportscasting into an investigative journalism show, SportsBeat, which predated ESPN’s Behind the Lines, then a Saturday evening eight o’clock comedy-variety hour called Saturday Night Live. It was not the NBC version, Saturday Night, whose debut season aired the same year, although NBC annexed the ABC show’s name after the former was canceled, as well as its Prime Time Players, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest. More importantly, however, as well as breaking ground by exposing issues such as drug addiction in professional sport, During the show’s brief existence, though, Cosell used it, as well as his other projects to both support and keep Muhammad Ali  in the public eye after he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. None of the many peers he had alienated by publicly challenging their professionalism and integrity would have dreamed of trying to take his comment regarding Mul-Key out of the context in which it was made, at that time.

A lot can change in a decade, however. Monday Night Football was wearing a bit thin with viewers after more than ten years with the same announcers. The network was beginning to experiment with new faces. Commercialism had become more influential, as well, meaning there was a greater desire to appease rather than challenge the audience. Cosell was now more universally perceived as the villain in the booth. Likability was in, and powerful people wanted Cosell out.

In 1982, Cosell referred to the Atlanta Braves’ 5′ 9″, 150 lb second baseman Glenn Hubbard as a “little monkey” due to his reflexes and range in the field. Like Adamle, though, Hubbard is white, so the comment passed unnoticed. Yet, a year later, when Cosell uttered the phrase again in relation to Washington wide receiver Alvin Garrett, who is black, certain people seized the opportunity to color it, pun intended, in a completely different light.

Cosell was, for all intents and purposes, forced into retirement. He did not apologize for the remark, instead honestly asserting his respect for Alvin Garrett both as an athlete and a person. When you’re unpopular, however, context cease to matter.

American society has become a popularity contest, rather than a place where ideals are defended. Money talks, but it’s truth rather than bullshit which is forced to hit the bricks. It’s why today’s controversial figure is Donald Trump. His popularity holds, despite his blatant dishonesty, because he is willing to speak on a level with the lowest common denominator. Cosell was hated for openly deriding ignorance.

People will say he should have been sensitive to the racial connotations of likening a black man to a primate. That is certainly something I have been conditioned to do, which is why I found myself portraying his remark as a fault, using this link to rationalize it, all the while fighting pangs of guilt that his two defenders in the twenty-two second clip were white men.

Here’s the thing, though. If any reasonable person’s goal is to end bigotry, how do we justify criticizing a man who has already done so in his own mind?

Howard Cosell is on record applying the descriptive “little monkey” in the same non-racial context to two white men as well as two African-Americans. Off the record, he did so with his grandchildren, as I remember older relatives doing with me when I was little. He saw the similarity between his grandchildren’s play at home, and that of smaller athletes on the field. Whether it was the play of Mike Adamle, Herb Mul-Key, Glen Hubbard, Alvin Garrett, and likely several other athletes he covered over the years, he loved them all equally, and unreservedly.

The problem lies in the privileged class’ inability to view those four men in the same light, not in Cosell’s failure to see them as different. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between an innocent remark and a slur. It requires getting to know people. But, until we can truly see others as equals, rather than just pretend we do, there will be birtherism. There will be anthem protests, There will be innocents dying at the hands of poorly trained, frightened police. There will be wrongful terminations like that of Larycia Hawkins, where image is more important than doing right.

Howard Cosell was never a racist. He was free from that affliction. It was, and still is, the rest of us who are infected.

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