ESPN Never Had A Golden Age: The Real Meaning Of Olbermann's ReturnS

So Keith Olbermann is returning to ESPN, which a) has to be one of the more expensive press releases in history and b) shows that the company really has come to that age where you start getting deeply sentimental. It all makes sense.

There is a mythological narrative about ESPN, set forth most effectively in the 2011 oral history Those Guys Have All the Fun but also, in its way, on the website you're reading, that runs roughly as follows: Up to a certain point, the network was a ramshackle shop run on nerve and brains, producing programming too edgy and perhaps too smart for its public. As it grew into its full authority as the single most powerful actor in American sports, though, it dulled its sharp edges, compromising its mission in exchange for access and in deference to entrenched power. In this telling, the survivors of ESPN's earlier days soldier on in a state of perpetual dissonance, trying to reconcile what they've become with the ideals they once held. This story casts people like John Walsh and John Skipper as former Weathermen in late middle age—still fundamentally sympathetic to the cause, cautious and conflicted in the exercise of power.

Olbermann comes in, in this reading of corporate history, as the ideal incarnate, the tortured genius—that word, "genius," comes up a lot—who simply couldn't accept the compromises necessary for ESPN to become what it is now. As John Walsh put it in Those Guys Have All the Fun:

The Olbermann and Patrick SportsCenter was aimed at the highest level of intellectuals who loved sports, but I don't think it was as appealing to the average-IQ sports fan. I don't think he had that much broad appeal. Some people hated to see Keith go, but at a certain point no matter who it is, if they really don't want to be there and they're at cross-purposes with the people who are running the company, it's inevitable.

Which, even allowing for hyperbole, come on. Here's a video of Olbermann saying, "Reggie Miller from way downtown! Bang!" and then making funny little trumpet noises with his lips:

If this comes off as a man slinging catchphrases with tenuous connections to the games being played, that's because it's a man slinging catchphrases with tenuous connections to the games being played. Olbermann didn't present some sort of more authentic contrast to Smirking Bristol Chimp No. 347's routine; he was the one who invented it.

It may be unfair to pick that out as a representative moment, but then you come across things like this, Olbermann's on-air obituary for Mickey Mantle.

Given his strengths—his deep love for and knowledge of baseball, his writing ability, his willingness to drop the cynical mask—you would expect this to show Olbermann at his best. Maybe it does. You still suspect George Will would have binned lines like this:

In a simpler, more glorious time in sports, he was the icon of a generation, and when that time became more complex and more realistic, and when that generation aged, he became the living warm memory, the half-myth, the fifties and sixties still wearing a smile, still swinging a bat.

Olbermann's actual merits as a sports broadcaster are beside the point, though, because he's always been most useful as a symbol. If it weren't him, there would be someone else serving as the representation of ESPN's golden age, because someone has to, because it's necessary to the larger myth that its present low state of pandering and race-baiting marks a distinct break from what it is inherently and always was. The history as someone like Walsh tells it may not be flattering—"We decided to turn away from incandescent genius for business reasons," etc.—but it works in service of a broader point about how corruption and low-mindedness were conscious choices.

In truth, ESPN was never the brainy underdog, surviving on scrap and zeal. It was always a well-financed shop operating on the perfectly reasonable premise that the sports-obsessed American public would watch a lot of sports on cable TV if given the chance, and it was always willing to do what it took to appeal to the "average-IQ sports fan." (Which, Christ.) Maybe the ESPN that hired Peter Gammons was better than the one that's turned itself over to Skip Bayless, but it's a difference of degree, not kind.

As a principle or an idea, then, Keith Olbermann, like Bill Simmons, mainly serves as a useful tool to advance ESPN's abstract interests, paramount among them the concept that the company is anything other than an image-laundering setup. That can work. As a fenced-off example of ESPN's willingness to get sharp and edgy, his show will probably be fine, at best the work that a smart guy who loves sports wants to be doing, at worst a dumb person's idea of a smart person's show that will still be better than most of what makes air.

Either way, its existence will signify what it's meant to, some point about ESPN's benevolence and magnanimity, and its willingness to hold on to the ideals of its vanished youth, as well as some things it isn't meant to. It will be interesting, at least, which makes a nice change.