CREDIT: NBC News
The Hollywood Reporter has a fantastic piece in this month’s issue, which is largely devoted to sports, on Keith Olbermann’s return to ESPN and how it happened. Marisa Guthrie’s piece contains interesting details about the meetings Olbermann had with ESPN president John Skipper and his ill-fated dealings with Current TV founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt. The most interesting details, though, are those that seem to paint a picture of what Olbermann’s show, which debuts August 26 on ESPN2.
First, Guthrie notes that despite early rumblings, Olbermann will be free to talk about politics on the show, though any political discussion will be tied foremost to sports. And ESPN is already reaching out to some interesting guests:
There is nothing in his ESPN contract that precludes him from talking about politics. His producers already have reached out to George W. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers. They have yet to receive a yes — or a no. (The radio silence might be attributed to the former president’s recent heart surgery.) And Olbermann also would like to have President Barack Obama as a guest. But his forays into politics only will be as it relates to sports.
There was plenty of hand-wringing about Olbermann’s politics when news of his return to ESPN first broke, but as I wrote then, limiting Olbermann simply to sports would cheat his audience, since he’s capable of diving into substantive political issues that affect the sports world with a culturally-aware voice and authority that many other anchors don’t possess.
Skipper seems to realize that. In talking to Guthrie about the launch of Fox Sports 1, whose executives “are all but taking credit for Olbermann’s return to ESPN,” Skipper said that Olbermann will bring that “authority” to issues like baseball’s drug suspensions (he already has) and other topics:
“It’s just positioning. It has no basis in actuality,” he says. “Our position is authority and personality. The personality gives you plenty of license to have fun. You’re going to need authority when you have A-Rod and 12 other players suspended. If all you’re going to do is have fun, I’m not quite sure how you’re going to handle Johnny Manziel or a scandal at Penn State. The sports world is large and complex and requires lots of tones and abilities. I think their position is fairly limiting, and I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that we’re the boring old dreadful storm troopers.”
So, back to politics. We have a tendency, especially when it comes to Olbermann and the persona he created at MSNBC, to think of politics as the day-to-day dealings in Washington or on the campaign trail. But as I hope regular readers of this site are aware, the ways in which politics and policy affect sports are much deeper. What we think of as “politics” are going to be largely, if not totally, absent from Olbermann’s show. But would an Olbermann who is totally restrained from talking about political issues be able to give full throat to stories like LGBT athletes and the Sochi Olympics? What about to baseball’s drug suspensions, paying college athletes, football’s concussion crisis, or LGBT athletes like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers?
None of those issues seem inherently “political,” and it’d be easy to take a surface-level look at all of them without diving into politics at all. All of those issues, though, have the potential to intersect with politics and policy. So while giving Olbermann the latitude to dive deep into substantive issues in sports even when they intersect with politics may feel risky for ESPN, it’s also a smart move, because an Olbermann who can’t bring his full authority to major issues of the day is an Olbermann who, frankly, isn’t totally worth watching.