Keith Olbermann started off the premiere of his ESPN return — a network he’d left with legendary acrimony — with a casual “As I was saying…” And it was exactly at that moment when I realized that I’d missed Keith terribly. Not since he’d left Current TV in the spring of 2012, but since he’d left long-form sports news 16 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong: I was a major fan of Olbermann’s news and politics show Countdown, at least in its MSNBC form (the rinky-dink, shoestring-budget version that briefly appeared on Current TV was kind of awful, just due to the non-existent production values of that no-longer-extant outfit). But watching this first few weeks of Olbermann on ESPN2 has reminded me that not only has sports broadcasting been missing this voice for the last decade and a half, but that Keith is if anything more valuable in sports than he was covering “hard” news.
Olbermann’s voice — still singular even though a generation’s worth of SportsCenter anchors have tried and failed to mimic it — is ideal for sports broadcasting. Breezy and quippy most of the time (absolutely NOBODY recaps highlights better than KO, period), Olbermann can still be deadly earnest when necessary. His two-night take on the recent NFL concussion settlement was the most in-depth discussion I’ve seen of that flawed and still insufficient bit of hiney-covering. On the anniversary of 9/11, Keith was the only pundit I saw — sports or otherwise — who really pinned down why that Wisconsin golf course infamously attempted to issue a coupon for nine holes of golf for $9.11. Although the idea was, as he memorably put it, “weapons-grade stupid,” he acknowledged that one of the key attributes of sports is that it’s a low-stakes game compared to the truly important matters of life. It’s both relaxing and satisfying to either participate in or watch a competition in which the outcome matters, at most, to your fantasy team’s standings.
Those who treat sports — and especially the watching of sports — as something intrinsically important are as tiresome as those who treat actual news stories as if they’re sports scores, as if the outcome of disarmament negotiations in Syria mean that either the U.S. or Russia will “win.” Having to deal with that mindset — which is prevalent in both the media and, to a distressing degree, in some actual elected politicians — eventually made Olbermann’s news and politics programs feel frustrated, tightly wound and occasionally strident. Working beloved riffs and catchphrases (“He-lllloooooooooo!”) into the highlights of a Red Sox/Yankees game, Keith seems like he’s having fun again, for the first time in far too long. It’s just good to have him back.
Olbermann airs on ESPN2 at 11 PM ET, or thereabouts. Depends on if a live event goes late.