Why Howard Cosell Didn’t Want to Announce John Lennon’s Death
On Dec. 8, 1980, Howard Cosell was tasked with informing millions of Americans that John Lennon had been killed. It was an announcement that carried incredible weight, and initially Cosell didn’t want to deliver it.
By this point, the veteran sports personality had become one of the most popular - and polarizing - broadcasters in America, having covered major events from the worlds of boxing, baseball and the Olympics. Still, Monday Night Football was perhaps Cosell’s brightest spotlight. On this occasion, he was calling a game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins when a message was relayed to the booth informing Cosell of Lennon’s murder.
“He was shot outside his apartment, the Dakota apartment building,” Cosell can be heard saying in an off-air conversation with broadcast partner Frank Gifford. “Fellas, I just don’t know. I’d like your opinion. I can’t see this game situation allowing for that news flash.”
Cosell was friendly with Lennon, notably having interviewed the cultural icon on two separate occasions.
Watch Howard Cosell Interview John Lennon on 'Monday Night Football' in 1974
The first was in October of 1974 when Lennon joined the sportscaster on his radio show, Speaking of Everything. That broadcast ran about 30 minutes and found the two men discussing everything from music to culture to Lennon’s immigration issues at the time. The second interview was much shorter, a casual conversation later that year during a December Monday Night Football game. Now, almost exactly six years later, Cosell had to tell viewers that Lennon was gone.
Still, it wasn’t the emotion of the situation that gave Cosell pause. Instead, the broadcaster was reluctant to report such devastating news against the backdrop of a sporting event.
As Cosell pressed Gifford for his thoughts on the matter, the former NFL quarterback made it crystal clear: The announcement of Lennon’s death had to be made.
“You’ve got to. If you know it, we’ve got to do it,” Gifford declared. “Don’t hang on it. It’s a tragic moment, and this is going to shake up the whole world.”
As the clock was ticking down on a tied ball game, and New England elected to use a timeout, Gifford forced the issue: “Three seconds remaining. John Smith is on the line. And I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth.”
“You can hear Frank Gifford, in case Cosell does not want to do this, he kind of backs him into a corner in saying that we must bring this news to you, no matter what the situation is in the game,” noted former ESPN personality Dan Patrick on his syndicated radio show decades later.
Watch Howard Cosell Announce John Lennon's Death on 'Monday Night Football'
“Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell began before breaking the news. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival.”
“I thought he handled it extraordinarily well,” Gifford later recalled on the ESPN program Outside the Lines. “Honestly, I was so concerned that maybe we had done the wrong thing. As it turns out, we didn’t.”
Twenty minutes after Cosell’s television announcement, doctors outside New York's Roosevelt Hospital confirmed Lennon’s death.