His name is Olbermann, Keith Olbermann. If you’re a sports fan you already know that sports media fact. You also know Olbermann’s public and professional persona has led to some ugly name-calling. Over the years, columnists, fans and colleagues have added some colorful adjectives to describe the Olbermann brand.
He’s been labeled Acerbic. Provocateur. Erudite. Acerbic – again. Jerk. Irreverent. A-hole genius. Baby. Olbermann may dispute some of those references, but almost all reports suggest his reputation precedes him. That is a fact, one Olbermann does not deny.
In 2007, David Letterman asked him, “What is it about you? You seem to burn bridges wherever you leave.”
Olbermann replied: “I don’t burn bridges, I burn rivers. If you burn a bridge, you can possibly build a new bridge, but if there’s no river anymore, that’s a lot of trouble.”
In 2011, New York Times media reporter David Carr profiled Olbermann, revealing this nugget about him:
People who work on television shows built around a single person tend to define themselves in relation to him or her. But Olbermann is not the kind of guy who comes in the door high-fiving his colleagues. Even people who admire him say that he turns inward, isolating himself in his office, in part because he writes most of the show, maniacally typing with a single finger. Employees at MSNBC were told not to talk to him while he was working and had to leave notes in an envelope taped to his door. Olbermann said that this is a fiction, that he finished writing the show out in the room so others could talk to him.
His colleagues at ESPN can relate to that description. In Those Guys Have All the Fun, an oral history of ESPN written and published in 2011 by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd referred to Olbermann as brilliant but thin-skinned.” Bill Simmons, another colleague, added Olbermann is “crazier than I am.”
So how does a guy who some call crazy, others call acerbic, a jerk and thin-skinned – who burns bridges and earns millions continue to, well, earn millions more while steadily offending colleagues and irritating millions of viewers? The answer is simpler than you might think. When you peel back the emotion, the drama and the verbal dart-throwing, the fact is Olbermann is extremely talented and respected, regardless of his personal quirks.
There is a story that clearly separates (defines) Olbermann from all those adjectives. It was August 13, 1995; the day Mickey Mantle died. ESPN producer Bill Fairweather asked Olbermann to write the obituary for SportsCenter. He agreed. Minutes after the meeting Olbermann called Fairweather to his desk. Olbermann, who notoriously types with one finger, was finishing the script on Mantle’s obituary.
Faithweather told the author of Those Guys Have All the Fun:
“Here was this obit, when Mick came into the league, what he hit in particular years, home runs, important milestones … he wrote the whole thing in 15 minutes, and don’t forget he types with one hand … So whatever you think about Keith – and everybody always has many different opinions – if you’re a producer, the guy’s hitting a grand slam for you. Who else do you know that can sit down and do that?”
Olbermann is in a league of his own. He takes his journalistic responsibility seriously. He challenges his guests and calls out his colleagues in the best interest of the product. Olbermann is a passionate fan with a sharp wit who can also, on occasion, deliver heartfelt commentary:
If you love him, good. If you love to hate him, well, that’s even better. Olbermann thrives on unnerving his viewers. Not like the obnoxious ranting of Tony Kornheiser or Skip Bayless, or the cartoon-style loudness of Stephen A. Smith, but the kind of pricking of the nerve that demands your attention and keeps you coming back for more. Hard to put your finger on it, isn’t it?
Maybe another sports fan summed it up best while sitting an earshot away from Olbermann as he was being interviewed by Carr at Yankee Stadium. The fan shouted, “Mr. Olbermann, I have somehow managed to form opinions without your assistance, but I really miss your show.” If there is a way to offend and compliment a man in a single sentence, this was it.
Last week Olbermann returned to ESPN to launch his new show simply titled, what else, Olbermann. His first-week performance has been dissected and criticized with mixed reactions, but no one pointed out the true difference of Olbermann then vs. Olbermann now. Remember him then, at the height of his SportsCenter days, serving up witty phrases? Soon, local news anchors across the country were ripping off Olbermann and/or Dan Patrick’s catchy phrases during game highlights.
Chris Berman made that place, ESPN producer Bill Wolff said in Those Guys Have All the Fun. But the guy who made ESPN a household word, the guy who made ESPN mean something in the market to everyone, was Keith Olbermann. God, he was a genius. He just reinvented sportscasting by being the smartest guy who ever did it. It was appointment viewing.
I’ve never seen anybody do SportsCenter as well as Olbermann, said ESPN colleague Karl Ravech. Nobody. It hasn’t even been close.
Olbermann could have been the next Chris Berman.
He could have played the political game and worked as an ESPN anchor until he, not the corporate button-pushers, decided it was time to leave. But that’s not Olbermann. When he left ESPN (the first time) in June 1997 he said, I did not envision celebrating my 40th birthday by making puns on athletes names. Hello, Stuart Scott!? He knew then that he didn’t want his fame to take a 180-degree turn into infamy. Olbermann did not want his reputation to dissolve into a caricature that would be mocked and that is what makes Olbermann admirable. He is restless. He is unwilling to settle, and because of these characteristics, Olbermann, now, is different. The ESPN SportsCenter clichés are gone. Olbermann is better, smarter and wiser than he was when he last anchored an ESPN broadcast 16 years ago.
As a journalist, that is admirable. The goal is not fame and success, but truth and substance. Olbermann is bringing these qualities back to ESPN and, ratings aside, sports fans are reaping the benefits. As a journalist, he deserves respect and the right to be called Olbermann, Keith Olbermann.