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Olbermann Returning to ESPN, Without the Politics

The outspoken host again proves a burnt bridge can be rebuilt and returns to sports talk. But can you really take the politics out of sports?

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Anne Ryan / NBC NewsWire / Getty Images

Former MSNBC News Anchor Keith Olbermann prepares for the AFL-CIO's Democratic Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago, on Aug. 7, 2007.

If Keith Olbermann has never seemed afraid of burning bridges in his career, maybe it’s because he knows a burnt bridge can always be rebuilt. In 1998, he left a successful primetime news show on MSNBC because he was tired of the cable channel’s constant coverage of the Monica Lewinsky case. In 2003, he returned to the network and stayed until leaving in a spat with his bosses in 2011.

Likewise, Olbermann worked for ESPN—as half of a legendary SportsCenter team with Dan Patrick—from 1992 until 1997, when he feuded publicly with his bosses and was widely believed to have burned the bridges to Bristol, Connecticut. (Actually, said an ESPN exec, “he napalmed them.”) But today it was announced that Olbermann is crossing back to his old employer, to host a one-hour nightly talk show for ESPN2 starting Aug. 26.

The details of Olbermann’s return to sportscasting (he already had a deal to do baseball commentary for TBS in the fall) are as interesting as the fact that it’s happening at all. First, he’s not literally returning to Bristol; he’ll be broadcasting from ABC’s Nightline studio in Manhattan. Second, his new contract reportedly prohibits the one-time liberal TV-news host from discussing politics on his show.*

*Update: In a conference call announcing the new deal, Olbermann refuted this earlier New York Times report, attributed to network executives, saying that there was no such no-politics clause in his contract. But, he said, he did not plan to discuss politics on the show except as it related to sports: “If I wanted to be doing politics,” he said, “I would still be doing politics.”

On the one hand, that makes sense: Olbermann still has passionate followers among sports fans and progressives, but it’s reasonable that they wouldn’t expect to turn on ESPN2 to watch him discuss filibuster reform.

On the other hand, what does “no politics” really mean? According to the same reports, Olbermann will be free to discuss “pop culture and current events” on the show. If you spend any time covering pop culture and current events, you know that it’s impossible to entirely separate them from politics—at least, from political issues that people care about and invest them with meaning—without turning off a section of your brain.

Pop culture by definition is the sum of those things the populace is interested in, which are often glaringly political, if not in a strict partisan sense: look at the movie Fruitvale Station, which came out just at the time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. The only way to discuss it while ignoring any political or social overtones would be to pretend to be an idiot. Sports themselves can be political in the small-p sense, whether it’s explicitly (say, the various international controversies around each Olympics) or by analogy (strikes and labor disputes).

[Update: Case in point, the day ESPN’s deal with Olbermann was announced, U.S. politicians were debating whether to boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia over Edward Snowden. Would anyone expect an Olbermann show to stay away from this political sports story? Why hire him if you wanted him to?]

All of which is to say that, while I don’t expect to see Olbermann giving Special Comments on the midterm elections on ESPN2, I also expect that a sharp broadcaster with an active mind and a history of doing what the hell he wants will eventually find ways to scout out the boundaries of “pop culture and current events” in his show–at least, to talk about sports in ways that go beyond the box scores.

That’s not to say Olbermann is going to turn this show into Countdown; he’s a sports guy and I bet he relishes the chance to get back into full-time sports coverage. But I think at this point no one reasonably hires him expecting him to entirely rein himself, or his nimble mind, in.

And hey, if this doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll see him rebuilding a bridge to MSNBC in [looks at calendar, does some quick math] 2016?