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Celebrity Sports: Battle of the Networks Stars

February 22, 2016

For this tale, we take you back to the 1970s—to a time when the TV landscape was much more sparse, and political correctness was more than a decade away. It was the inaugural Battle of the Network Stars, a celebrity sports event chock full of drama, scandal, triumph, cigarettes, and a few ethnic slurs.
Howard Cossell and Bruce Jenner


Battle of the Network Stars was the brainchild of Barry Frank, president of CBS Sports. His goal: to make sports more entertaining by placing non-athletes in athletic events, which wouldn’t be nearly as fun if they also weren’t also beloved TV stars of the day. The success of the first broadcast spawned 18 more Battles of the Network Stars, aired every six months for the next nine years, rotating between CBS, NBC, and ABC. Filmed as if it were the Olympics, the event was hosted by the 1970s’ most cherished sports personalities, led by the legendary Howard Cosell. Who. Said. Every. Word. As. If. It. Were. Its. Own. Sentence. The sideline reporter was Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, who interviewed the stars after they competed in such events as swimming, kayaking, tennis, cycling, an obstacle course, golf, a slam-dunk contest, and the big final event, the tug-of-war. Although the announcers (somewhat) took the games seriously, the same couldn’t be said for the stars, most of whom showed up merely to have fun and promote their shows. But one star took the proceedings very seriously. Let’s go to the videotape.


Telly Savalas and Gabe Kaplan
The three team captains: CBS’s Telly Savalas of Kojak; ABC’s Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back, Kotter; and NBC’s Robert Conrad of Baa Baa Black Sheep. After NBC won the 400-meter relay race, Savalas, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, complained to Cosell that NBC’s Ben Murphy (Gemini Man) took the baton “a hundred feet early.” For Savalas, this injustice was more than an insult to his network, it was an insult to his ethnicity. “I’m a Greek-American, a representative of my ancestry who started the Olympic Games,” he said, only half-jokingly. Meanwhile, echoes of “NBC cheated” reverberated throughout Pepperdine University, where the games were held. Cosell asked Savalas pointblank: “So you think NBC should be disqualified?” Savalas replied, “You mentioned that word, Howard, I didn’t. But yes, I think so.”


Conrad and Murphy
When Conrad got wind of the news that his NBC teammate was accused of cheating, the diminutive tough guy—whose famous commercials dared America to knock a battery off his shoulder—complained to Jenner that ABC was merely looking for a scapegoat to blame for their poor performance. “If they’re protesting the fact that we outran them,” Conrad quipped, “then that’s their problem.” Savalas and Kaplan, who’d remained on the sidelines up until that point, entered the fray. Savalas, wearing a red polyester sweatsuit and sparkling gold chains, said to Jenner, who was sporting casual wear, “It’s like if I put my uniform onto you, Bruce, that’s how vulgarly and flagrantly they broke the rules!” Conrad responded with a few racist comments about Kaplan and Savalas, ending with, “I’m German, so I want to kill them both!” Everybody laughed.


Then came the ruling: In one of the earliest instances of instant replay being used to overturn a call on the field of a sporting event (seriously), NBC was given a two-second penalty, making ABC the winner. Conrad was even more incensed. He challenged Kaplan to a one-on-one 100-yard race to determine the true winner. Kaplan, with his wry smile, took the challenge. (He didn’t mention that he was a track star in high school.) After a tense wait, the runners left their marks and Kaplan left Conrad in the dust. Teammate Ron Howard (Happy Days) was the first to congratulate him. Conrad, out of breath, said, “That’s the way (pant) I like it. The best man won.” Then he slapped Kaplan on the face (twice) and walked away. In his trademark style, Cosell longwindedly concluded: “And so Gabe Kaplan comes through in the clutch. He understands now why we call it the thrill of victory vis-à-vis the agony of defeat.”
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