Keith Olbermann Picks Just the Right Time to Return to Sports Coverage

ESPN host has the journalistic chops to take on the meaty stories happening in athletics now

Keith Olberman
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Keith Olbermann might not have fully realized it, but he picked the right time to get back into sports, where the coverage, for the most part, hasn’t caught up with the news.

It’s been noted that sports once led society — witness Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier — and of late appears to be following. Less reported upon but equally true is that many charged with chronicling the games, afforded untold hours to fill debating minutiae, appear to be just as out of their depth.

Having cut his teeth as a local sports anchor and on ESPN, Olbermann returned to the latter after more than a decade dealing with weightier affairs as a primetime host on MSNBC — essentially defining the network’s opinionated liberal brand — and then a brief stint on Current. The return to sports doubtless came as a surprise to some, who wondered whether the polarizing host would be satisfied with nightly game highlights, as opposed to mocking former time-period rival Bill O’Reilly.

Yet Olbermann re-entered the world of sports at a moment when the field keeps yielding meatier stories — from steroid use to the bullying charges leveled against the Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito, from the massive concussion lawsuit against the NFL to players coming out as gay in the NBA (Jason Collins) and NFL (prospective draft pick Michael Sam).

“It’s a good, strong period of time if you want to assess it that way,” Olbermann acknowledges in an interview.

Olbermann’s news instincts and biting commentaries stand in stark contrast to much of the blather emanating from ex-players and coaches — as well as studio hosts and even print columnists drafted to bloviate — who frequently sound tongue-tied when the topic deviates from X’s and O’s or wins and losses.

In the Incognito case, for example, former Chicago Bears coach-turned-ESPN analyst Mike Ditka dubbed the lineman’s accuser and teammate, Jonathan Martin, a “baby.” At Fox, ex-coach Jimmy Johnson coyly wondered what shortcomings other teams saw in Martin that the Dolphins didn’t.

Then there was ESPN’s Chris Broussard delivering a lecture about the Bible’s view of homosexuality while discussing Collins’ future in the NBA. As an item on Deadspin explained, “Broussard was already scheduled for the show — to talk about the Lakers, of course — when the Collins news broke.”

Makes sense, provided one gives equal weight to Kobe Bryant’s knee injury and discrimination against gays.

Olbermann suggests sports is no different than any other form of media in an age where technology demands immediate analysis — and has created exploding opportunities for talking heads, however dubious their qualifications.

“The people who can instantaneously assess the long term and midterm and short-term implications of anything are very few,” he says. “It’s like war. Technology is always years, sometimes decades, ahead of the tactics.”

Olbermann’s devotes only a few minutes to hard news during eponymous show, which usually airs on ESPN2, but can bounce around among the sports titan’s channels when games run long. Still, his opening comments pull few punches. In a recent program, he asked, “Why do athletes virtually default to gay slurs?” In another, he observed, regarding NBC’s carefully shaped Winter Games coverage, “The Olympics as a media product is not sports.”

While many sports fans seem preoccupied with the basics — How will my team do this year? — Olbermann insists many are hungry for this sort of approach.

“I’ve never been told by a sports fan that they didn’t want to know about the realities,” he says. “They want the devoting of time to serious, big-picture stories.”

Asked the inevitable question about whether he misses having all the news of the day at his disposal, Olbermann likens returning to sports on a full-time basis to having spent the intervening years broadcasting in French. “I’ve come home to my native language,” he says.

Assuming that’s true, it’s good news for fun and games. Because amid a cacophony of sports voices, Olbermann isn’t the worst person in the world to be sitting behind a sports desk.