Just a week ago last night one of this holy land’s cultural touchstones celebrated its 50th anniversary. Hard to believe for a lot of people of my generation (and older) but Monday Night Football first aired on ABC-TV September 21, 1970. Since then the network television colossus has presented somewhere in the vicinity of 700 football games.
Funny thing was, no network really wanted any part of it. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle went begging to the three main networks at the time — CBS, NBC, and ABC — and came away with an empty hat. None of the nets wanted to mess up its regular prime time schedule, especially on a Monday night when middle class America began settling in for the week in front of their TVs after work. ABC in 1970 was the lowest rated of the three networks so Rozelle hammered hard at it. He told ABC honchos he was prepared to sell the idea of prime time football to the Hughes Television Network, an independent entity dreamed up by wealthy loon Howard Hughes who’d envisioned it as a fourth player in the coast-to-coast TV scene. Just a couple of years before, Hughes had tried to purchase a controlling stake in ABC and was rebuffed, leading him to want to stick it to the company. ABC, afraid it might even be overtaken by the nascent Hughes operation, grudgingly signed a contract with the NFL and threw together a trio of booth announcers, a novel idea. for the first game.
One of those announcers was a lawyer from New York City named Howard Cosell, a loud, annoying, tell-it-like-it-is kind of a guy who’d ridden the coattails of a young Cassius Clay. In 1960 Clay (later, Muhammad Ali) won the heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics. Cosell’s announcing of his subsequent professional bouts made him as famous as the fighter. Cosell’s Wikipedia page describes him thusly:
Cosell’s style of reporting transformed sports broadcasting in the United States. Whereas previous sportcasters had mostly been known for color commentary and lively play-by-play, Cosell had an intellectual approach. His use of analysis and context brought television sports reporting closer to “hard” news reporting. However, his distinctive staccato voice, accent, syntax, and cadence were a form of color commentary all their own.
Funny thing was viewers hated Cosell. I mean they despised him. Many Monday Night Football tavern parties turned into Cosell bash-fests. One bar owner in Denver even sponsored contests to allow a weekly winner to throw a brick through the TV when Cosell appeared on the screen.
Monday Night Football creator and executive producer Roone Arledge realized viewers’ antipathy toward Cosell just might draw even more of them. Rather than axe Cosell, Arledge instructed him to be…, well, more himself. The more Cosell played Cosell, the more people tuned in. Eventually, Monday Night Football became the most watched prime time show on television for many years.
It’s a bizarro world story, one that would be inconceivable even a year before it began to play out. But the country had just emerged from the topsy-turvy Sixties, an era when many cherished American institutions were mocked and discarded. So, tens of millions of male football fans — as well as their girlfriends, wives, and sisters — tuned in to see if they could get in on the hate orgy.
And that’s another shibboleth Monday Night Football laid to rest — that the gridiron game was solely played for the pleasure of men. Before Rozelle, Arledge, and Cosell, the game was played on Sunday afternoons to a TV audience almost exclusively male. The term “football widow” described women who couldn’t get their husbands to do anything other than park themselves in their dens and watch the Giants or the Bears or the Colts. After the trio worked its magic, football watching became the province of a more balanced gender viewership.
Me? I’ve never given a good goddamn about football, either the pro or the college game. Oh sure, I know who the great stars were and occasionally have enjoyed watching highlights of pigskin wizards like Joe Montana or Lawrence Taylor but ask me who won what game yesterday and I’ll sit there with a blank look on my face.
In fact, The Loved One and I had a tradition every Super Bowl Sunday of driving down to Jasper, Indiana to have a cone at an old-fashioned ice cream shop on the west side of the square there. Sadly, that ice cream parlor — I seem to recall it being named Libby’s — closed down before the 2020 Super Bowl so we’ll have to come up with a new tradition.
Anyway, we could do that because the streets of America are pretty much deserted on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon and evening. It’s as though we have the whole nation to ourselves.
Truth is football is the quintessential American sport. And only the Hallmark Hall of Fame drama anthology program has run longer on prime time television.
Copies of Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives, by Charlotte Zietlow and me have begun to arrive at the Book Corner. The book’s flying off the shelves so far. Call the store at 812.339.1522 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to order your copy today.
And you can always cop an e-book copy via Amazon. But, really, wouldn’t you rather have a good old hard copy in your hands?