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Keith Olbermann Wants ESPN Back. Would the Move Make Sense?

Today, James Andrew Miller — who literally wrote the book on ESPN — reported in the New York Times that Keith Olbermann wants to return to ESPN, where he worked from 1992-1997. Olbermann, Miller writes, has made several direct and indirect overtures in recent months, including a dinner with ESPN president John Skipper:

“Keith Olbermann, both personally and through a couple people I know, reached out to say, ‘Gee, I would love to have dinner,’ ” Skipper said. “I agreed to dinner with Keith because I assumed he’d be provocative and witty and fun to have dinner with, and he was indeed lots of fun. We talked sports and politics, and we had a nice chat. He is very interesting.

“Clearly he was looking to see if there was an entry point to come back.”

Later in the story, Skipper does not seem particularly enthused about the possibility:

“After the dinner, at that point, there was no real appropriate place for Keith to come back, nor did I feel like I was prepared to bring him back,” Skipper said.

“We don’t have a policy that says we won’t bring somebody back. We’re running a great business, and when we think we can get quality content, there’s no such thing as a condemned list. That said, this is not an easy place to get back into. There are not that many successful examples of people who have come back, in part because it’s like water filling a vacuum. When somebody leaves, somebody else fills their place.”

Olbermann’s Talent

In Skipper’s metaphorical content vacuum, Olbermann’s return would make at least some sense–he’s incredibly knowledgeable and talented. With teammate Dan Patrick, he anchored SportsCenter as well as anybody in the station’s history. Growing up in that era, the duo stands out alongside my father and Mike and the Mad Dog as those most responsible for shepherding my love of sports.

Unfortunately, a good example of Olbermann’s snarky wit and humor in reading highlights does not exist on Youtube (come on Internet, get on that), but this Mickey Mantle obituary provides a pretty good glimpse into his superb knowledge and storytelling:

Olbermann is also a very talented writer. His Marvin Miller obituary was phenomenal. An excerpt:

One thing you can not argue is that Marvin Miller hurt the owners. This used to be the first response to the Major League Baseball Players Association that he built: that the man that Braves’ Vice President Paul Richards called a “mustachioed four-flusher” was a communist or a socialist or anarchist who would destroy the game, its owners, and their God-given right to profit. It was an act of faith for owners and Commissioners and even a huge percentage of players (Stockholm Syndrome) that without the Reserve Clause that Miller and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and Peter Seitz brought down, teams would go bankrupt, or at best the small markets would never compete nor last (in the 19 years ending in 1972, 10 franchises moved. In the 40 years since, one moved).

As the first wave of Free Agents mourn him, and all the players since give distant thanks, the owners ought to build statues to Marvin Miller. According to an anecdote told by their then-VPs Buzzy Bavasi and Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers profited six million dollars in 1963 and four million in 1964 (and thus owner Walter O’Malley complained that he’d “lost” two million). That the Dodgers – and everybody else – went from those then-dizzying figures to tens of millions, then hundreds, then to signing multi-billion dollar tv deals – is directly attributable to the new economics that Miller unleashed.

He, personally, put the word “billion” into baseball. Into all sports, for that matter. And via the miracle of imitation, probably into other forms of entertainment.

Skipper’s Motive for Speaking on the Record

But, we’re not operating in this vacuum in which Olbermann’s (prodigious) talent alone is the basis on which to evaluate whether or not it would make sense for ESPN to bring him back. On Deadspin, John Koblin writes about the motives for Skipper’s comments:

Subtext: He’s not coming back, but I’ll leave the door cracked open thismuch. Why would Skipper be so open about this? Well, it’s the opposite of how everyone has dealt with Olbermann before. Each network that’s brought him in was both charmed and desperate. It needed a star. It needed ratings. Skipper is saying no thank you. If Olbermann really wants back in, then he won’t mind being humiliated by me in public. And if he doesn’t mind that, maybe he’ll be chastened just enough to prevent him from running amok once again.

Skipper, Koblin writes, is sending a veiled threat to ESPN’s current talent who may be thinking about leaving for upstart competitors popping up under the FOX, CBS, and NBC umbrellas. Don’t be so sure you can crawl back to us if it doesn’t end up working out.

A History of Unpleasant Departures

With Olbermann, though, the story runs much deeper than somebody who leaves amicably for greener career pastures. Beginning what would become a trend, Keith didn’t exactly leave ESPN on the most pleasant terms. Per Miller’s ESPN book, via Hollywood Reporter:

By 1997, ESPN executives had had enough. “I was enraged by Olbermann,” ESPN chairman Herb Granath said. “Guys like that just piss me off, you know, because there’s no loyalty. It’s just me, me, and me. There was no choice but to get rid of him.” Executive vp Howard Katz concurred. Olbermann “was tearing the newsroom apart. Keith had to fight management on every single point. So [in 1997] I finally came to the conclusion that despite his brilliance and talent, we would be better off without Keith. I didn’t fire Keith; I just chose not to renew his contract. Keith did not respond well — although I’m sure it didn’t come as a surprise.”

For the ensuing 15 years, Olbermann would bring a tank of gasoline and a torch to every bridge along the way.

- Of the job at MSNBC that he left ESPN for, Olbermann said that his work, which required substantial coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, would give him “dry heaves,” and would “make me ashamed, make me depressed, make me cry.”

- He left MSNBC for Fox Sports, where he would last for three years. Would Rupert Murdoch ever hire him back? “No, I fired him five years ago…He’s crazy,” Murdoch said.

- In 2003, Olbermann returned to MSNBC, where his Countdown show would last until 2011. Both sides signed a non-disclosure agreement so nothing specific has come out about the departure, but it did follow a suspension for campaign donations to three Democratic candidates. There was almost certainly deeper context behind both the suspension and the dismissal.

- Then, Olbermann lasted just over a year of his five-year contract at Al Gore’s Current TV. After firing him last March and replacing him with Eliot Spitzer, Current released an inflammatory statement justifying the move. Via Politico:

We created Current to give voice to those Americans who refuse to rely on corporate-controlled media and are seeking an authentic progressive outlet. We are more committed to those goals today than ever before.

Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it.

I’m struggling to think of a parallel–that statement reads like a Taylor Swift song. At this point it seems reasonable to conclude that it’s not everybody else, it’s Keith.

What Would Keith Do?

At Sports on Earth, Will Leitch wonders what Olbermann’s role at ESPN could even be:

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.

So, yeah, Olbermann’s re-entry to ESPN seems highly improbable. While it would be incredible for me, as a high volume sports consumer, if he were able to restore SportsCenter to it’s former glory — or, really, even watchability — one is led to believe that the only reason that this story became public in the first place was as a warning sign to anybody even thinking about leaving Bristol.

Beyond that, Olbermann’s polarizing political commentary would seem to be a barrier. Personally, I probably agree with more of Olbermann’s stances than I disagree with. (But I definitely don’t agree with everything.) However, I can understand why right-leaning viewers would not want to see or hear him during their sports consumption, which is supposed to be an oasis from real-world issues. Even if they were knowledgeable, I’m not sure I could stomach Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh with any sort of regularity. While, as SI media critic Richard Deitsch points out, ESPN tolerates political commentary  and involvement from Mike Lupica, LZ Granderson, Stephen A. Smith, Lou Holtz, and others, none of them are nearly as famously identified for it. Do any of my more Republican readers want to chime in on this point?

And now that we’ve reached this point, I’m left to wonder why, exactly, I just spent an entire morning and over 1,700 words discussing something that has very little chance of happening.

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