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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?

21 comments
Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

Card carrying liberal here, who didn't always appreciate Olbermann's hyperbole to the same extent that her friends did, but I didn't know that he quit MSNBC once because he didn't want to talk about dear Monica.  Maybe I didn't know that because I quit watching any and all news shows, even my beloved Charlie Rose, because I didn't want to hear another word about Monica Lewinsky.

Now I find I have a respectful solidarity with the guy, and kinda wish I had a sports gene.  Alas.

SteveEhrlich
SteveEhrlich

I assume Olbermann still doesn't have a driver's license. Astonishing that anyone with his confidence level can't drive.

JdReader
JdReader like.author.displayName 1 Like

Some negative comments about Keith....guess he did something to rankle the conservatives--like speak the truth.

SuziePalmer
SuziePalmer

@JdReader Try fact checking 99% of the hate speech that typically flows from ko's lips. If you would actually do that I feel you would better understand why he might rankle a conservative.

bwsd92115
bwsd92115

Without the politics?...that horse is out of the barn...good luck...I won't be watching

eagle11772
eagle11772

This guy's a BUM !  Rich, white liberal, hypocritical po......

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@eagle11772 Hey mister, have you read something about Marxist Leninism?  If you haven't , then, how in heavens an ignorant like you can label someone as communist? In the small world of your brains, anybody that doesn't agree with the Tea party, the GOP and the rest of the gurus of the neoliberalism, is a bloody communist.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@RamonRoman @eagle11772 , Actually, I have.  I read "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engles.  TWICE, once in 1972, and once in 1979.  How many times have you read it ?  Olbermann is also DISHONEST and UNETHICAL.  He gave money to THREE DEMOCRATIC candidates for Congress, IN DIRECT VIOLATION OF HIS CONTRACT.  He was suspended and then fired for violating his contract AND his ethics as an objective journalist.  He should stick to reporting about baseball.

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@eagle11772 @RamonRoman Ah, eagle, I forgot to comment in your avatar. You are confused, mister, the avatar you have is a fox, not an eagle. Have you noticed that? Or maybe is an eagle with the face of a fox and the body of the bird.

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@eagle11772 @RamonRoman You read the manifesto twice! That's all? So now you think you know how Karl Marx and Frederick Engels think? You are laughable, is like saying that reading the Mein Kamp makes you a national socialist.

Look eagle, do you think that the journalists from Fox are objective? We, as humans, are all biased in thousand ways. There is not one truth, there are 6 billion truths, one for every human being of this planet. So, to call someone dishonest, is to be dishonest with the way you think you know the human species.

James_One_Shade
James_One_Shade

He'll probably get re-fired right around the time he ticks off GoDaddy by declaring that Kyle Petty is right about Danica Patrick.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

Contract or not, there's no way Olbermann totally avoids political commentary.  I hope ESPN knows what they're getting into.

yogi
yogi like.author.displayName 1 Like

Is his show going to be live or prerecorded? I hope live to see his annoyance when a bowling match goes long and cuts into his show.