Politics & Policy

Olbermann’s Past

Before MSNBC, he was enraging colleagues and getting pushed out at ESPN.

In their new book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales have compiled a massive oral history of the most successful sports channel in the history of television, drawing on interviews with almost everyone we associate with the network. Not surprisingly, Keith Olbermann figures prominently in the book, both as a character and as one of the many interviewees. In his time at ESPN, Olbermann was best known for co-hosting the 11 p.m. SportsCenter with Dan Patrick, a position he held more or less continuously from 1992 until his abrupt departure in 1997. (Olbermann also helped launch ESPN2, hosting SportsNight for a short period in 1993-94.)

After reading the accounts of Olbermann’s many former colleagues, coupled with his own recollections of his time at the network, the reader emerges with a more complete picture of a man who, though seriously flawed, was decisive in shaping the network’s future and who inspired an entire generation of sports broadcasters.

Interestingly, when Olbermann first joined ESPN in 1992, he took a major pay cut. He had previously been making $475,000 annually as a sportscaster for KCBS in Los Angeles (in a contract that network chose not to renew), but when he made the move to Bristol, Conn., he started with a salary of only $150,000. At the time, Olbermann’s ego already had a notorious reputation, and just before Olbermann signed on to the network, sportscaster Bob Ley made a prescient comment:

I still remember the lunch when John [Walsh] and Steve [Bornstein] were deciding whether they were going to hire Keith. I said, “You’re aware of his reputation, aren’t you?” They said, “Oh, it’s not going to be like that. He’s not making all that much money.” I said, “It’s not a function of money. Know what you’re buying.” When he arrived, Keith had one thing in mind: it was Keith. That’s fine. Nothing wrong with that.

Charley Steiner, who had previously hired Olbermann in 1980 in New York on the radio, was impressed by Olbermann’s intelligence but was also aware of the potential havoc his personality could wreak:

 Keith is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. . . . [I]ntellectually he was a genius and socially he was, well, a special-needs student. When I heard he was coming to ESPN I knew it would take some getting used to — on everyone’s part.

Upon assuming the 11pm SportsCenter anchor chair in 1992, Olbermann immediately put his signature on the program and gained a substantial new audience, particularly in the 18–25 demographic. What most impressed his co-workers was just how much Olbermann knew about sports, and how quickly he was consequently able to write and put together segments for SportsCenter. Producer Bill Fairweather recalls an example of this following the death of Mickey Mantle, whom Olbermann, a lifelong Yankee fan, idolized:

It was my responsibility to produce that SportsCenter show. I said to Keith, “Obviously, you have to write the obit for Mantle, and he said, “Yeah, no problem.” We went through the rest of the meeting, Keith leaves the room, and by the time I make it back to the newsroom, about fifteen minutes later, Keith calls me over to his desk. I say, “What’s up, K.O.?” and he says, “Hold on a second, I’m almost done.” And he had written a complete five minute and thirty five second long obituary! I know that because the computer would tell you how long the actual version would be on tape. So he handed it to me and here was this obit [starting] with when Mick had come into the league, what he had hit in particular years, home runs, and the dates of important milestones. Now, Keith did have a little reference guide next to him, but let’s face it, how much time did he actually have to look up a lot of things if he wrote the whole thing in fifteen minutes? You know what I mean? . . . So whatever you think about Keith…and everybody always has many different opinions — if you’re a producer, the guy’s hitting grand slams for you.

At one point, Olbermann’s on-air personality was so dominant that many newer sportscasters had difficulty finding their own voices on the network. Journalist Steve Levy recalls:

When I first got to ESPN, I wasn’t being myself on the air. I was trying to be either Dan [Patrick] or Keith, and that was the trap that a lot of new anchors fell into. The height of SportsCenter was with those two; they were the signature figures. I don’t think that’ll be different seventy-five years from now.

Ultimately, Olbermann’s attitude and behavior toward his colleagues — a topic which hardly anyone shies away from in Those Guys Have All the Fun — meant that his contract could not be renewed in 1997. Here’s Herb Granath, now chairman emeritus of ESPN:

I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just p*ss me off, you know, because there’s no loyalty. It’s just me, me, me, me. Of course you have to take care of yourself, but at the same time, there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. . . . Eventually, the guy dug himself a deep hole. There was no choice but to get rid of him.

And Bob Ley wasn’t exactly in tears when Olbermann left, either:

I saw [John] Walsh in the hallway and I said, “Our long national nightmare is over, huh?” Apparently Dan [Patrick] said the same thing to him independently. We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained f–ing joy. People were thrilled. And it may not be fair to him, because I don’t know what his issues are. Whatever they are, they are. There was a fair amount of “Why did it take so long?” Some of what happened with him back then is romanticized, but there are still people there who remember how people were treated, spoken to, referred to, and no amount of subsequent gentle behavior is going to erase that. I honestly hope he’s happy. He wasn’t happy here.

ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd was always perplexed at how, for someone so quick to criticize others, Olbermann had remarkably little tolerance for criticism directed his way:

Keith Olbermann’s brilliant but he’s so thin-skinned, and yet he criticized for a living, sharply and often with daggers. You can’t do that for a living and then not take a punch. I’m always shocked at the talented people who criticize and then are seemingly outraged at any salvo directed at them.

Olbermann himself even assesses his combative personality and how deeply ingrained it is:

My mother had gotten used to this attention-garnering thing of mine fairly early on. I was never in a group. I’ve never been a wallflower. And so there was a lot of this for her beginning in the third grade. . . . The teachers would call come over to her and go, “Sooo, you’re Keith’s mother,” with a combination of awe and pity.

This is not to say that Olbermann was without a heart. Kenny Mayne, a sports journalist for ESPN, remembered how kind Olbermann once was to him when Mayne was going through a terrible time:

I think Keith has a warm side; it’s sometimes hidden under a vest. You just can’t see it. Keith is something of a tortured genius. He was rough on the help at ESPN, but he was always good to me. We lost twin sons — Crayton and Conor — back in 1996. . . . [I]n their memory, Keith made a real nice donation to the Ronald McDonald House up there. He also worked for me both Christmas and New Year’s that year while it was all going on. My wife and I will never forget those things.

Ultimately, most at ESPN were able to differentiate the man from his work, and Olbermann is still widely respected as having been one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all time. His colleague Karl Ravech sums up the feeling of many when he says, “I’ve never seen anybody do SportsCenter as well as Olbermann. Nobody. It hasn’t even been close.”

— Nat Brown is a comments editor at National Review Online

Nat Brown is a former deputy web editor of Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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