Olbermann’s New Sports Talkshow Pulls No Punches (Well, Maybe Just a Couple)

Olbermann's new show looks like it will face the usual ESPN identity crisis

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Keith Olbermann onstage during the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 24, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Keith Olbermann onstage during the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 24, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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).

(MORE: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before — Olbermann at Odds With His Network)

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.

(MORE: The Most Snake-Bitten Franchise in Sports? A Case For the New York Jets)

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.

(MORE: NFL Players Have a Higher Risk of Death From Brain Disease)

“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.

MORE: Sports Television — Why ESPN in the Crown Jewel

19 comments
Onepatriot
Onepatriot

Agree or not, and in sports, who does, he's good at what he does and very witty.  I like that.

j.erbes
j.erbes

LizaLou, EVERYONE likes Keith Olbermann. Please crawl back under your rock.

LizaLou
LizaLou

No one likes this A-hole.  Enough said.

md4ca2012
md4ca2012

ya think people would prefer someone to dictate to them what their opinions are that was not such a narcissistic sob??? 

RickLiebling
RickLiebling

I'm a longtime KO fan, take that as you will. I thought last night was an exercise in high level trolling. "Think I've got an ego? I'll have two segments that include my name in the title." "Fan of Deadspin? I'm going to call out the sports media for self-generating stories, two days after Deadspin blew the lid off ESPN's efforts in that area." "Only know me as a liberal pundit? I'll side with Gov. Christie."  

It was the first show, so still some kinks to work out, but there was some good moments too. Interesting to see how his numbers match up against Jon Stewart as both shows air at 11pm est. Probably some audience overlap.


tholt74
tholt74

Olbermann didn't leave ESPN for Fox Sports Net. He had a brief stint at MSNBC, got depressed after covering so many Monica Lewinsky-related stories and then got hired by Fox.

alsalpen
alsalpen

@richarddeitsch a couple of deadspinnerz. I thought whitlock name dropping deadspin last night was rather interesting.

FreemanMcNeil
FreemanMcNeil

Loved the article!  It was better than a peanut butter and cheese sandwich.

Slanty25
Slanty25

@jackdickey Great article. Kept thinking about Koblins piece while KO was talking. Hope he gets comfortable & starts to needle ESPN a little

JohnDoyle1
JohnDoyle1

Controversial? Yes. Entertaining? Always. Never, ever a talking. He was truly a pioneer of ESPN - half of the ground breaking "Big Show" with Dan Patrick, which evolved Sportscenter into an iconic status.. The critically acclaimed TV series "Sports Night" was an intimate biography of Keith and Dan.... I, for one, welcome him "home".....

pharmacist1952
pharmacist1952

Who listens to this Left Wing nut job? ......Why is he still on the air?

jackdickey
jackdickey

@barryap1 Great. Fantastic. I will assume you guys just forgot to send me a mobile-friendly invitation.

j.erbes
j.erbes

@PaigeAird Your co-worker and her mother are BOTH LYING TO YOU!

WHY ARE YOU FALLING FOR THIS INTERNET SCAM, PaigeArd?

We all care about you! Please quit listening to these awful people!