In Defense of Keith Olbermann and His 12-Round Boxing Match With Politics, Sports and Viewers

On the 26th day of the eighth month in the year 2013, Keith Olbermann defied all doubt or detraction and premiered his brand-new ESPN 2 program to the 100 million-plus homes in which the network beams. This was noteworthy on two levels: 

1) Anybody who geeks out when it comes to sports media (hey, there!) knows that some of his best work came when he turned ESPN’s flagship program, Sportscenter, into must-see TV throughout the ’90s … and then proceeded to offend, piss off or intimidate pretty much anyone who lived in the town of Bristol, Connecticut, let alone the actual ESPN campus itself. There’s no way he could ever work there again, we all thought. He once even famously proclaimed, “I don’t burn bridges. I napalm them,” all but cementing his distance from the worldwide leader forever and ever, amen. The mere thought of him going back to that network was a minor earthquake in its own right. 

And 2) Olbermann had spent the last decade of his life engaged in a 12-round boxing match with politics. Included in that fight was a barrage of pissing matches, most famously with Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, that brought his reputation as a smarmy, know-it-all curmudgeon to exceptionally new heights if only because he had decided to start talking foreign policy rather than box scores and, as it turns out in America, people take that stuff far more seriously than they do, say, a day-night double-header at Yankee Stadium (though admittedly not by much). Opting for the political talking-head universe during a time when the sports climate was cultivating its own form of the practice was accidentally contrarian and a far bigger, more substantial stage on which the guy stood, what with news about wars, presidents and terrorism breaking every three seconds.

Moving from MSNBC (where he abruptly left not under the best of terms) to Current TV (where he abruptly left not under the best of terms)… and then back to the network he abruptly left more than 15 years ago (again, not under the best of terms) seemed implausible, if not outright silly. If his ego wouldn’t allow it, the collective ego of the network would shoot the notion down quicker than they cancelled the often-missed Playmakers

But lo and behold, here were sit, nearly three months later, and Olbermann, his glorious return to the sports world, is just that: pretty damn glorious. Airing weeknights at 11, the show is everything his old Sportscenter days were: Whip-smart, unsuspectingly hilarious and exceedingly insightful in ways other sports commentators (of which there are far too many these days, mind you) could never even dream of providing. For the first time in a long time, there’s a valuable voice in the professional athletics blab-o-sphere, and nobody knew exactly how missed that voice was until it returned. His isn’t just entertaining; it’s certifiably imperative.

Such is why the people at WFAN in New York — and more notably talk radio stalwart Mike Francesa — need to settle down. 

To those who have missed it over the last two weeks, here’s what happened. In the wake of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying mess that has put a stain on professional sports culture, the NFL and most prominently, the Miami Dolphins, radio hosts Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason took a shot at Olbermann on the air, claiming he has been bully-like at various former places of employment. Olbermann shot back by going on his show and denying the claims (something he’s long done when confronted with bullying accusations in the past) while also bringing Francesa into the mix. The widely popular Francesa then went on his radio program and called Olbermann a jerk, said he’s had eight jobs in the last five years and claimed the former political pundit’s shows never do well in the ratings category. 

And, as we like to say, boom went the dynamite. Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder has been chronicling the feud since its inception, and something he wrote on 8 November rang quite loudly:

Keith Olbermann needs a protagonist to make him and his television persona work to its maximum capabilities. Mike Francesa is his new George W. Bush. The only thing missing is KO derisively calling him “Mr. Francesa.” Make no mistake, Olbermann is going to get the last word in, whether that happens this week, this month, or April 2024. Heck, he was advertising #FrancesaWorstPersons on his Twitter page to get viewers to turn in to see him verbally annihilate Mikey. He lives for this!” (“Round 4: Keith Olbermann v wFan Gets Nasty!”)

Yes, he does. And that’s exactly why his latest television venture — not the nasty feud in which he now finds himself — might just be the best project of which he’s ever been a part. 

Olbermann, the man and the show, works because it’s sport. Maybe the single most likely reason Yahoo! has an entire answers page dedicated to the question “Why do people hate Keith Olbermann?” is the association he shares with the political world. Sure, there currently may be 14 answers listed on that page, but how many do you think would exist, had he never decided to veer into the politics game?

Let’s count. Of the 14, seven use either the word “political” or “fascist” in them. One appears to be gerbish. One uses the word “pinko”. One says “Who?” Another claims he’s a jerk. Somebody named James argues, “I don’t hate the man, I just don’t want to listen to him.” And someone else says he’s a gorilla while another calls him a “moron who thinks he’s a genius.”

The takeaway? None of them argue against his abilities as a sports commentator. 

Bipartisanship appears to be an ideology found in only ancient times now, and no matter which side of any political debate you land on, the theoretical window for compromise has firmly closed. To label it all polarizing is actually a disservice to the word polarizing — modern political passive-aggressive friction in the Free World is downright disgusting. Disgusting and impossible. It can make you best friends just as quick as it can make you eternal enemies.

Olbermann has none of that portentous rhetoric. Instead of a debate about how the Bush administration ruined America, there’s analysis of the connection between concussions and the NFL. Rather than harp on constitutional rights for 12 minutes, there’s an entire segment devoted to showing game highlights, fully equipped with the sportscaster’s wit. Goodbye, Iraq War special comments. Hello, World Series recaps. See you later, Attorney Generals. Make room for newspaper columnists. I mean, Rex Ryan as his witness, he did 15 minutes on the New York Jets to open the entire series, for God’s sake! 

My point is this: The wide world of professional sports is the perfect place for such a stubborn yet brilliant mind as Olbermann’s. With ESPN’s laughable “embrace debate” mantra, the network, as well as the athletic side of popular culture, has quelled the flames of passion that so many people begin to feel when they make the case for their home teams. Be it a product of over-saturation or be it a product of… oh, I don’t know, actual, real life stuff… it’s much more accepted to argue in favor of a sports squad than it is to argue in favor of world leaders. Together we can laugh, scream and cry our way through a professional basketball season. It’s a lot harder for people to do that through presidencies. 

And that’s why Olbermann is so essential to the sports landscape. He’s a high-level thinker, someone with enough big words to make a thesaurus blush. Not only will he tell you why you’re wrong, but he’ll also be entertainingly condescending while doing so. You can get away with that, if you’re talking Super Bowl picks for the AFC. You can’t necessarily do the same when critiquing foreign policy. The level of consequence is too high. People (and rightfully so, mind you) take that sort of talk far more seriously than they do NHL trade deadlines or starting visiting-team quarterbacks. 

But — and this is an important “but” — there is a place for that in the sports world. There is most certainly a spot for sophisticated disputation in a subset of culture that leaves so much to chance and so little for logic. We view our athletes as super-heroes with every interception acting as another shot of kryptonite, every turnover another battle lost with hopeful expectation that a string of tough luck will turn itself around eventually. To think it isn’t relevant to have a voice in sports that does its research, crafts absurdly intellectual tomes, has no regret or resolve about reminding people how it feels, can back it all up — and isn’t even remotely afraid of consequences — is unwise.  

“When he was on MSNBC,” The New Yorker‘s Kelefa Sanneh wrote after the first episode of the ESPN 2 show, “Olbermann had political targets to match the enormity of his contempt. But Olbermann is entertaining for the same reason those old episodes of SportsCenter were: because, from the high perch that Olbermann assigns himself, nearly everything that happens on or around a playing field looks slightly ridiculous. Near the end of Monday’s show … it was time for Olbermann to introduce a package of sports highlights — actually, highlights of the highlights he had played earlier in the program, with special attention paid to the miscues. A different announcer might see a heroic home run; Olbermann can’t help but notice the goat who gave it up.” (“Keith Olbermann: Back on the Team”, 27 August 2013)

Behind each genius brain is a very real and very substantial combination of self-deprecation and overt cynicism. Within it is a uniquely sardonic eye that misses nothing and criticizes everything. Everything. Sometimes, that can get you in trouble. Sometimes, it can make you detestable. Sometimes, it can make you impossible. Sometimes, it can lose you friends. And sometimes it can turn fringe enemies into worthy adversaries. 

But then there are those times that make such a conflicted, determined and laborious mind appear above and beyond its competition, above and beyond its peers, above and beyond expectation. Olbermann’s brain is all of these things, for better or for worse. WFAN might not like it. Craig Carton, Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa might not like it. A lot of right-wing Americans might not like it. And Fox News might not like it. But they’re all going to have to live with it. 

Because for the first time in more than a decade, it finally feels like Olbermann has found a proper home.

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