Howard Cosell, Working Class Hero

A popular music icon was murdered thirty-one years ago today.

And though the news that John Lennon had been gunned down in front of his apartment was tragic to those who first heard it, it was a breaking news report from an unlikely source that had ultimately become synonymous with the Beatle’s death.

“An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News,” said Howard Cosell in the fourth quarter of the Patriots/Dolphins “Monday Night Football” game from Miami. Cosell proceeded to inform viewers that “the most famous, perhaps of all of the Beatles [was] shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.”

Of course, three decades ago, the number of available media sources was a mere fraction compared to today. And since the news of Lennon’s death broke during what was one of the most popular programs at the time, it’s possible that millions of people learned of the John Lennon killing through Cosell.

Not to compare the death to John Lennon to that of al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, but just to put into perspective the wide array of media that exists in 2011: When news of bin Laden’s death broke, many people were watching one of the cable news networks, or local news coverage, and/or took to social networking – something that did not exist thirty years ago. Meanwhile, the big live sports event at the time was “Sunday Night Baseball” on ESPN. And the lead play-by-play announcer, Dan Shulman, like Cosell, credited ABC News for the report of bin Laden’s death, though likely more due to ESPN’s corporate link to ABC. Adding to this moment was Bobby Valentine – who was manager of the New York Mets at the time of the 9/11 attacks – who was also part of ESPN’s “SNB” booth. He was reluctant at first, but the future Red Sox skipper eventually shared his memory of managing the first baseball game in New York City to be played after 9/11 (September 22, to be precise).

And imagine if the game being played that May night – Mets at Phillies – was being played in New York. That would have been an even more surreal moment. But we’ll take the Citizens Bank Park crowd chanting “U-S-A.”

The big difference between the regular season baseball game that was being played in 2011 during the news of bin Laden’s death, and the regular season football game in 1980 as news of Lennon’s death unfolded, is the viewing audience for both events, coupled with the available media outlets at the time. There was no 1,000-channel universe thirty years ago, let alone a 100-channel universe. And, of course, football games tend to have higher ratings than baseball on television.

So while Shulman was said to have done a “commendable” job in breaking the news of Osama bin Laden’s death to ESPN viewers – who were instructed to dial up ABC News for more information – it likely didn’t reach as many people as Cosell did when informing a “Monday Night Football” audience of John Lennon’s killing. Though Cosell was doing a service to more people in an era where there were fewer news sources, and Facebook was far from being a household name.

Because when news of such nature breaks, it should take precedence over any sporting event. As Cosell said, “Remember, [it’s] just a… game. No matter who wins or loses.”

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