The Bad Way to Say the Word Monkey: First Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Then Howard Cosell

Headline on a July 30 story, by NYU professor Tim Naftali, on “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation with Richard Nixon.” That conversation happened in October 1971. The story’s lede:

The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.

Twelve years later, another use of the word monkey in the worst possible way:

On September 5, 1983, the Washington Redskins were hosting the Dallas Cowboys on ABC-TV’s Monday Night Football. During the first half, Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett, an African-American who at five-foot-seven was short for an NFL receiver, caught a pass. Howard Cosell, part of the MNF announcing team along with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, said: “That little monkey gets loose doesn’t he?”

Garrett caught 10 passes that night; the Cowboys beat the Redskins 31-30. The next day the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called the Cosell comment racist and demanded an apology. Cosell was defended by, among others, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, and Garrett himself—Cosell said he often called his grandchildren little monkeys. But the fallout contributed to his retiring and the next year he was replaced in the MNF booth by O.J. Simpson.

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