As reported by the New York Times yesterday, Keith Olbermann wants to return to ESPN. That's a historically awful idea, and I'm pretty sure ESPN agrees with me. But it's worth unpacking anyway, to try to understand what Olbermann might possibly be thinking.
The story itself, written by "Those Guys Have All The Fun" co-author James Andrew Miller, enjoys the bold-faced news of Olbermann's return but doesn't seem to find it any more likely than I do; Miller can barely keep his tongue-in-cheek throughout the whole piece. Even more so, ESPN president John Skipper, who confirms having dinner with Olbermann to discuss the matter at the Four Seasons (sans pink gorilla), essentially nixes the idea at the end of the piece, saying, memorably, "There was no real appropriate place for Keith to come back, nor did I feel like I was prepared to bring him back. … There's no such place as a condemned list. That said, this is not an easy place to get back into." It's not known whether Skipper was wearing a "WE ARE NOT BRINGING BACK KEITH OLBERMANN WHAT ARE WE FREAKIN' NUTS?" T-shirt at the time, but I'd have to think it's possible, if it happened to be Casual Friday in Bristol.
I understand why Olbermann would consider a return to ESPN. Like many people, particularly those around my age group, I consider Olbermann on ESPN iconic, like Letterman back on Late Night on NBC, or Will Ferrell's prime on SNL, or Keith Jackson calling the big game on ABC. Olbermann, along with (to a lesser extent, Dan Patrick), changed sports, and sports coverage, and ESPN does him a disservice if it fails to remember that. Back in the heyday of Olbermann-Patrick-Big Show "SportsCenter," it felt like you were watching Bob and Ray run through sports highlights, a nightly literate comedy show that happened also tell you who had won all the games last night. "SportsCenter" is considered the flagship show of the ESPN enterprise -- even as dipshittery like "First Take" horns in on its territory -- and Olbermann and Patrick are the reason why. They made that show must-watch, even if you weren't a sports fan. (A college roommate who knew so little about sports that I once convinced him an alternate name for a field goal in football was a "flying cow kick" … he even always watched the Olbermann-Patrick "SportsCenter" with us.) Patrick was a great straight man, but Olbermann was the real star, the smart mustached nerd standing outside of sports, reminding us how silly it was, yet also loving every minute of it. The show was irresistible, and you can track ESPN's meteoric rise to around that moment. It really once was cool to watch "SportsCenter." I swear.
But that's all just nostalgia. ESPN hasn't been the place of The Big Show in more than a decade, and that Olbermann thinks it possibly could be makes me wonder if he's even watched the network in the last 10 years. A Keith Olbermann could never thrive at ESPN anymore. The "SportsCenter" anchors now are basically interchangeable clones, watered-down bland quipbots, designed for efficiency and anonymity. (Exceptions, most notably Scott Van Pelt and Rich Eisen, inevitably end up branching out and/or escaping at the first opportunity.) Seeing Olbermann on "SportsCenter" would throw that whole program out of whack; it's impossible to imagine him throwing it to Stephen A. Smith and Eric Mangini for the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts without wanting to kill himself. (Just typing that made me feel depressed, and old.)
So "SportsCenter" is out. What else could Olbermann do? It's tough to see him having some sort of "Countdown"-esque show; if he thought he didn't have freedom at Current TV or MSNBC, wait until he sees the memos after he has Dave Zirin on his show, calling out corporate welfare in sports, or does a special statement on sexual harassment in the workplace and starts dropping colleague's names. (If Olbermann were to be consistent in his criticism of out-of-control corporations, well, Keith, the call is coming from inside the house.) I also suspect he'd make Chris Berman -- with whom he has famously feuded -- one of his worst people in the world every night. Not happening. Do you put Olbermann on one of the debate shows? The idea of Olbermann embracing debate against Skip Bayless makes me cry.
Nevermind that Olbermann has an ongoing war with Bill Simmons, who is arguably the network's most powerful individual talent. The mutual distaste between the two is unusually nasty, even for a media tiff, with Olbermann saying Simmons has no talent and no taste and Simmons telling Olbermann, "You're my worst case scenario for my career in 12 years: a pious, unlikable blowhard who lives alone." Needless to say, it's impossible to imagine Olbermann throwing it to Bill, Magic and the crew on "NBA Countdown." As much as outsiders like me who love a good pie-throwing contest -- particularly between such skilled verbal jousters as Simmons and Olbermann -- would enjoy the tension, that's just not something that's ever gonna fly at a place as conservative as ESPN. This is a business that asks its staffers not to criticize people at other networks. Considering how many people at ESPN Olbermann has fought with, that would be a series of bombs, ready to go off, all the time. ESPN is too big and too risk-averse to let that happen. Neverminding that, uh, Olbermann is in the midst of suing the last network he worked for. Ask Harold Reynolds about being asked back after a lawsuit. (I'm still sorta surprised they didn't have Harold killed.) And this is all ignoring Olbermann's notorious reputation for being, oh, mercurial. Olbermann has blown up relationships at places a lot more talent-friendly than ESPN.
Listen, I would love Olbermann to come back to ESPN, and not just because I slow down for car crashes. I'd love to have a reason to watch "SportsCenter" again. I'd love to see Olbermann back in sports, a field he clearly cares about more than politics. (I sat next to Olbermann at a spring training game once and was delighted to see he was keeping score.) I'm a big fan of the guy. He's one of the reasons I ended up working in sports. But if he really thinks this ESPN thing could possibly work, he's a lunatic. The ESPN you once knew is gone, Keith. It's been gone for a long, long time.
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Full disclosure: I was on Olbermann's show a few times, and we talked for about an hour at that spring training game. I miss the mustache. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.