When news broke that Keith Olbermann was returning to ESPN with his own nightly show, much of the coverage rightly focused on whether or not Olbermann would be allowed to talk about politics. I argued then that it would be a tragedy were he not allowed to touch them at all, not because I wanted to hear Olbermann’s nightly thoughts on the purely partisan political issues of the day but because in certain instances, Olbermann has a unique gift for drawing attention to the intersection of sports and politics.
Wednesday night, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Olbermann did just that, describing the roots and persistence of American racial segregation through the lens of his father, Negro Leagues superstar pitcher Satchel Paige, and King. As a 12-year-old, Olbermann’s father saw Paige play at Yankee Stadium as a member of the New York Black Yankees. Olbermann’s father never asked, though, why Paige couldn’t pitch for the white Yankees, even though he grew up in the Bronx, largely free from racial prejudice.
“It didn’t hit home, he said, until I saw what they did to Martin Luther King and the other protesters,” Olbermann said. “And that’s why segregation survived so long, my dad said. Not just because there was racism, but because there were people who were not racist and still didn’t ask, ‘Why are people kept apart because of color?’ The same people who never asked, ‘Why isn’t Satchel Paige pitching for the white Yankees?’ or never asked, ‘Why aren’t there any black people living in this neighborhood out here in the suburbs?’ My dad looked at me and said, ‘Getting people to ask that, that’s what Martin Luther King did for this country, and for me.’”
Watch the full segment:
The many subtexts of Olbermann’s monologue are clear: that sports and society are indelibly intertwined, that sports can highlight problems and rifts in broader society and that sometimes society can highlight injustices in sports, and that still today there are injustices that persist, both in sports and society, because we don’t always ask why they shouldn’t. Why shouldn’t there be more black coaches and executives? Why aren’t there more openly gay athletes? Those are issues that exist in sports but are tied to issues that exist out of them, and Olbermann, perhaps more than any other person in the television business, has the ability to highlight that connection and the gravitas to lend them the proper weight. Watch that segment again and revel not just in the power of the story but in the power of the storytelling.
Olbermann doesn’t need to talk “politics” to talk about serious issues like this, but drawing too clear a line between sports and their impact on society and the times they bump into politics would waste Olbermann’s talent and cheat viewers of his show. It seems from other reports that ESPN isn’t planning to do that, and I hope that continues to be true, because more segments like this one on other issues that touch on the impacts sports has on society and vice versa make not just for good TV but for good journalism and a more informed society. It doesn’t have to be all he does. But on nights like Wednesday, when it needs to be done, no one on TV can do it quite like Olbermann.