Howard Cosell and the ‘Little monkey” comments
Anyone who watched much sports during the 1960s and 70s will recall Howard Cosell. He called boxing matches (famously saying “Down goes Frazier” in a title fight with George Foreman). He announced Major League Baseball, NFL Football and announced at the Olympics (most famously at the 1972 Olympics) . He is perhaps most famous for his long stint on Monday Night Football with “Dandy” Don Meredith and Frank Gifford.
Noted for being sharp, witty, caustic and loquacious, Cosell said of himself, “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There’s no question that I’m all of those things.” He also had a soft side, devoted to his wife for 46 years until her death, devoted to his children and to his grandchildren. He lovingly often referred to them as “little monkeys.’
In 1972, Cosell used this term of endearment — Little Monkey — referring to Mike Adamle, a white football player who played running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Mike Adamle was only 5 foot-9 inches tall and under 200 lbs. Quite small for the NFL, and Cosell used it as a complement: “That little monkey — you know, the theorem was that he was too small for pro football”
The next year, on Monday Night Football’s halftime highlights, his voice-over for a 97-yard kick off return by Herb Mul-key of the Washington Redskins went: “Look at that little monkey run!” Mul-key is black.
A few years later, in 1982, Cosell said of the white, diminutive (again 5 foot-9 inches, but only 150 lbs) Glenn Hubbard, who played second base for the Atlanta Braves: “”That little monkey can really pick it.”
But the world changed. On a Monday Night Football telecast on September 5, 1983, after Alvin Garrett of the Washington Redskins made a clutch reception, he said: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”
Alvin Garrett is black. Cosell was denounced as a racist by The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lowery demanded a public apology. Others piled on, demanding an apology. Cosell, ever his own man, refused.
At the end of the 1983 NFL season Cosell retired from announcing NFL football. His wife had passed away a few years earlier and he had new interests, like writing a book. He continued announcing Major League Baseball games, but never used the Little Monkey term again. It was not PC-compatible.
Cosell’s use of “Little Monkey”, it seems, can help us pinpoint when political correctness gained its position for thought control through language control.
In 1973 calling a black athlete “Little Monkey” raised nary an eyebrow. In 1983, it could lead to the end of a career.
I’ll submit that this is approximately one generation after our colleges and universities turned largely socially liberal and radically so (Thomas Jefferson used 18-years as a generation). Largely in reaction to the civil rights movement, anti-war sentiment and a desire to develop a separate identity from “the greatest generation”, by the late-70s and early 80s these students had begun moving into the leadership of the country, and they brought their idealism with them. And imposed it on us.
“Politically Correct” is largely a pejorative term nowadays. Does that mean ‘Politically Incorrect” is a term of endearment? “Oh, you politically incorrect little monkey.” Hardly.
For me, I suppose that the idealism reflected in PC-ness is to be appreciated. But I’ll remain intellectually non-PC. For example, I can’t get myself to use these PC terms:
- “Native American.” Why not? I was born here and so was my dad. And so was his dad. I’m a native. If I can’t be native here, where do I go? Side note: I don’t like the term “Indians” or “American Indians” either. That’s a misnomer. Indians are in India. I do rather like what the Canadians call this race: First Nations.
- “African-American.” I work with a fellow who was born and raised in Tunisia. Came here and eventually became a US citizen. He has a definite Mediterranean-rim Arab look. I have met other people who were born and raised in South Africa. They are lily white and also became US citizens. Now THESE people are African-Americans, if you want to use the term precisely. What was wrong with Negro? Black? Colored? No disrespect was meant by these terms. And by the way, why do blacks often call themselves “nigger”?
- “Gay and Gay Marriage.” Gay means “happy, full of joy”. People who have been married for decades, and happily so, are in a “Gay Marriage.” What was wrong with the terms lesbian, homosexual, same-sex union?
The title of Howard Cosell’s book is “I Never Played the Game.” The intent of the title was not to convey the point that this brilliant little Jewish boy who gave up a law career to do sport announcing never actually played the games and sports he covered. No, it was because he never got caught up in the corporate game. He stayed his own person until the end. He remained faithful to himself; he was who he was.
So, I hope, it will be with you.
Joe Girard (c) 2013
thanks to co-worker Gil for reminding me of this period, Mr. Cosell, and for doing some initial research.