God bless Keith Olbermann; the man always comes out swinging.
Olbermann, his daily hourlong talk show, debuted live Monday night on ESPN2 without introductory credits. It seemed like a glitch. One second ESPN’s panel was wrapping up a rain-shortened day at Flushing Meadows; the next, Olbermann was talking at us. “As I was saying,” were the first four words we heard. It didn’t put the viewer at ease. But that’s not what Olbermann has returned to the Worldwide Leader in Sports to do.
He has a tortured history with the network — I’d say he “burned bridges,” but I’d have to put a dollar in a jar somewhere — which includes his highs as part of the SportsCenter “Big Show” in the mid-1990s, and his lows, both during the trying-too-hard earliest days of ESPN2 and when he quit Bristol for Fox Sports Net. He put all of that history on display on Monday night, unveiling recurring segments “Keithlights” (which will replay some of his wittiest highlight calls from the golden years) and “This Week in Keith History” (which will evidently mock his early-90s sartorial choices and hirsutism).
But the more relevant Olbermann history comes from his years as a political talk-show host, when he used his unique-on-TV wit to shred cable news’s witless babble. Inquiring minds wanted to know: Will he do the same thing for sports?
Yes. His opening segment left no doubt. Olbermann took aim at the media circus that perpetually surrounds the New York Jets, a spectacle that gives any thinking person a headache. The latest crisis: The New York Daily News’s NFL correspondent, Manish Mehta, had called for head coach Rex Ryan’s job after quarterback Mark Sanchez got hurt behind backups during the fourth quarter of a preseason game. Mehta “reasoned” that Ryan should have kept Sanchez away from the field, for his own sake, after rookie starter Geno Smith had played poorly during the first three quarters. (The unwritten central premise: Mark Sanchez, who in 2012 ranked No. 36 among the 36 qualified quarterbacks in ESPN’s QBR stats and hadn’t played well enough in the preseason to beat Smith out, was absolutely vital to the Jets’ success in 2013.) Once Mehta had locked in on Ryan, the rest of the Jets press corps — just as dopey, but more timid — followed suit, speculating on how the coach could make such a foolish decision, and when he’d be fired. The story metastasized to the point where one writer on USA Today’s For The Win suggested that the Jets fire Ryan immediately. You know, 10 days before the season starts.
Olbermann beat all the writers to bits for chasing a dumb story made even dumber because a reporter’s tweet started it all. “Did you know some sports stories are made up?” he asked, playfully. Olbermann appears to be the only soul employed by ESPN — well, aside from the just-hired Jason Whitlock, who was Olbermann’s first guest — willing to question newspaper hacks and dynamite their workaday falsehoods. He noted, with sufficient appreciation for all the moment’s irony, that he had to join forces with Chris Christie to do so.
And yet — It’s ESPN, so there’s always an “and yet” — one of the reporters pushing Ryan’s buttons in a press conference clip Olbermann mocked was none other than Rich Cimini, employed by (yep, you guessed it) ESPN. ESPN’s news operation has played along with the invented story, devoting plenty of time to it on SportsCenter on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and publishing Cimini’s column headlined, “Only Jets could butt-fumble QB battle.”
What’s worse, this past Friday Deadspin — ESPN’s eternal antagonist (and [disclosure!] my former employer), which was praised by Whitlock during his visit as the best force for holding the sports media accountable — showed, with exacting video precision, how ESPN does the same thing. That post, concerning an endlessly discussed Ron Jaworski SportsCenter soundbite, has over 300,000 page views. I’ll bet anything that at least two of them came from Olbermann and Whitlock, who are both committed readers of the site. If either one saw the irony, neither mentioned it.
Also unmentioned, despite the show’s admirable commitment to maiming lightweight journalists, was ESPN’s recent decision to pull out of its partnership with PBS’s Frontline. The team had been producing a documentary expected to criticize the NFL for its handling of brain injuries; now the documentary will run without ESPN’s imprimatur. A New York Times report claimed ESPN bailed after pressure from the NFL, its business partner, and that too went unmentioned. When Olbermann named NFL executives his first “worst persons in the sports world,” he did it because they placed the Super Bowl in New York in February, not because they bullied ESPN.
“Welcome to the Skip Bayless network,” Olbermann’s second guest, Mark Cuban, told him, referencing the disingenuous blowhard pundit who pollutes ESPN2 daily. “Welcome to the A-Rod network,” Olbermann replied, trying to make ESPN’s crimes against sports journalism look like everyone else’s.
But Olbermann looks like it will face the usual ESPN identity crisis, the same one that confronts Grantland, ESPN the Magazine and every other fiefdom within Bristol committed to doing good critical work: It’s hard to talk about what’s wrong with sports, especially in sports media, without fingering ESPN in some way. The realignment crisis in college football? That’s ESPN’s fault. The Hot-Take-ification of so much sports writing? More blood on ESPN’s hands.
If Olbermann doesn’t find an intelligent way to acknowledge his own employer’s faults, the show will still be damn fine: He’s as deft as ever before the camera, and hearing him call the highlights — including real, lengthy MLB clips, which one never finds on SportsCenter anymore — was a true joy.
But if he can find a way to make Bristol squirm just a bit, from his perch high atop Times Square? Then Olbermann will really be something worth watching.