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All Brain, No Heart: Why We Don’t Need Keith Olbermann on ESPN

Keith Olbermann is back in the spotlight, taking his breathless monologues and acerbic wit to the world of sports. Do we really need moral lectures from a presenter more concerned with himself than the people he covers?
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2013 Summer TCA Tour - Day 1

Sports is a hard subject to talk about. It’s harder to discuss intelligently, rationally and earnestly than politics, for sure. And that is why I’m scared.

Sports are an escape that we fans know, deep down, is silly. As I’ve said before, sports gives us hope, so we ignore the silliness completely and embrace a suspension of disbelief that lets us endure PED scandals, ridiculous ticket prices, and the fact that legitimate criminals are making more money than most of us will ever see in our lives. Deep down, we know it’s silly, but we let a more powerful, and more necessary, sense of wonder block that out.

But wonder and smugness don’t mix well.

So when Olbermann, the new late-night talk show on ESPN, gives Keith Olbermann the chance to talk on not just sports, but current events, pop culture, and politics, “the worldwide leader in sports” is asking a man not known for his grace to deftly walk a fine line between host, journalist, and, yes, fan. Bill Simmons’ Grantland website accomplishes this, but it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to ever come across as pretentious - something I don’t think Keith is able to do.

Yes, some writers, like Nate Silver, also balance on that tightrope while maintaining strict journalistic practices, but they usually do it at the expense of the kind of personality that makes watching Pardon The Interruption or The Daily Show so wonderful. I love Nate Silver, but I don’t know if I could handle his statistic-driven prattling on my television every night.

With Olbermann, Keith seems aware of this and in his first few weeks on air, has been trying to counter that possible reaction with reinterpretations of classic segments like “Time Marches On” and “The Worst Person In The Sports World” that play like The Daily Show during the writers strike. It feels forced because it is.

With today’s over-saturated media, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are essential. They tell us exactly what we should, at a baseline level, be aware of in terms of politics, all the while finding the innate silliness of the whole system. They are doing us a favor by helping us comprehend just how fucked we all are by letting us laugh as we figure it out.

But the sports world doesn’t need its inherent silliness put under a spotlight from an outsider, which after Olbermann’s many years in the murky world of politics, he is. Yes it needs intelligent, investigative fans (because all journalists/commentators/analysts are really the biggest fans, in that they are dedicating their life to this topic), but they need to have a respect for their importance in relation to the larger entity of it all. There’s a popular saying in sports that goes, “No one is bigger than the game.”

Michael Wilbon, Bill Simmons, Gene Wojciechowski, Jason Whitlock. They all understand that. Their writing is sincere and personal, their introspections are curiosity-driven, and their tirades are never self-serving. Most importantly, with a slight exception to Simmons, they are never the star. The athlete is. The team is. The game is. I am worried that Olbermann, cocky as all hell in the 90’s, has let the time since then only inflate his sense of self even more.

It’s amazing that even during exploitive monologues about 9/11 memories, he finds a way to make his poetic storytelling the focal point; and with an unwavering confidence, he has set himself upon a high horse that flirts with hubris. I would remind him that in 2002, he published an essay on in which he admitted, “I couldn’t handle the pressure of working in daily long-form television, and what was worse, I didn’t know I couldn’t handle it.”

Worse still, by playing the role of judge instead of journalist, he is immediately isolating himself from a community that by its very nature isn’t meant to be solitary. A well-told narrative of a post-9/11 memory may impress an audience, but Keith should take a look at Jon Stewart’s unforgettable return to air after the attacks and learn what it means to capture not just an audiences attention, but their respect as well.

At the end of his morality lecture on sports’ place in 9/11 remembrances and tributes, he claims, “Sports says to you ‘You get to put your feet up and watch something and pretend things didn’t change.’” But what he hasn’t seemed to realize is that while he can pretend all he wants, a lot has changed when it comes to his relationship with sports, and it might not be best for the two to start seeing each other again.