Good Luck Silencing Keith Olbermann (and Is That MSNBC on the Phone?)

As ESPN seeks to clamp down on a man who can't live without commentary, he looks more and more like the kind of person the left-leaning cable network might want to ask back.
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The Hollywood Reporter broke a story Wednesday about how Keith Olbermann’s contract situation with ESPN might get a little sticky because (pretending to be ESPN executives mumbling into their fists) they don’t want him doing “commentary.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

Here's the thing about Olbermann: He’s very good, polymath that he is, at a number of things, but he is particularly and strikingly good at commentary and is very keen to do it whenever he wants to do it.

That last part can’t be underscored enough. If there is something in the world that raises Olbermann’s eyebrow, much less rattles him to the core, the odds are very, very good that he will write something scathing and trenchant about said irritant and then, with due haste, go looking for a microphone.

Which means if ESPN — still reeling from the backlash over its decision to get rid of Bill Simmons — inconceivably wanted to get rid of Olbermann as well, it sure picked the right place to draw a line in the sand. Because if you tell Olbermann he can’t, of all things, have an opinion, he’s going to go ballistic, wiping the line out of the sand with his pale feet, and then he’s going to cross it with aggression and let you know how he feels.

By, say, having a commentary-type moment about it.

That’s why my first reaction upon reading the THR story was: A) to blurt out, “Yeah, good luck with that,” while laughing; B) to come to the immediate conclusion that there was no way in hell that Olbermann would sign a contract taking away his right to have commentary segments and, finally; C) wonder if ESPN was doing this on purpose to make him walk.

The latter, of course, makes sense, if ESPN is trying to please the NFL, an organization that takes public commentary of the negative kind about as well as Vladimir Putin’s Russia does. ESPN already has folded like a sickly dog in the face of the NFL’s displeasure with its reporting on concussions and has zero evidential history of wanting to annoy the NFL further or taking a stand in support of one of its employees, particularly an employee with Olbermann’s history with the channel.

So, no, there’s not a scenario one can conjure up where ESPN president John Skipper is seen on the phone yelling at the NFL to take its countless millions of dollars and stuff it, so that Olbermann has the right to go batshit crazy about concussions or, say, the rampant charges of violence against women that NFL players seem to get themselves into.

Given what we know — meaning, what we’ve seen ESPN do — it would be far more likely to imagine Skipper saying, “He’ll be out of the building in a week,” to any call from the NFL about Olbermann’s right to voice an opinion, followed up by a tidy “Yes, and thank you.”

History tells us that ESPN has a very low threshold for people with outspoken views — it is the smooth-in-the-lower-region Ken doll of sports outlets — and no matter how or why this little glitch came up in regards to Olbermann and his contract, if it’s absolutely true, there isn’t a scenario imaginable in which he stays.

An Olbermann departure, however, certainly would open up some opportunities for him and some company in need of, say, a guy very much interested in the injustices of the world, be they sports-related or legal or political — or even trivial. What outlet could use a very well-spoken, super-motivated and angrily erudite person with a built-in fan base with an election approaching?

If you shouted MSNBC so fast that you slurred it, congratulations!

Among other places where Olbermann would fit in in various capacities, MSNBC makes a ton of sense because it’s been rudderless and mostly irrelevant since the cable network and Olbermann parted ways.

Sure, being the landing spot for Brian Williams when NBC couldn’t bring itself to fire him and instead sawed a hole in the bottom of his doghouse might seem kind of sexy — if you look at it through a fish lens or a fun-house mirror. But the truth is, MSNBC desperately needs a revival of Countdown and a return of the prodigal bad boy who is one of the rare people on the left interested in slapping those on the right (and, yes, Fox News) about the face with glee. Oh, others do it, but few of them outside of Jon Stewart or John Oliver get noticed while doing so.

Keith Olbermann, as history also informs us, gets noticed for just about everything.

MSNBC might claim it doesn’t need Olbermann, and Olbermann may have zero interest in returning to MSNBC. But once Olbermann returned to ESPN, there were no shocks left in the system for what he or any organization in his past was capable of. Could MSNBC and Olbermann reunite? Of course they could. Hell, it almost makes so much sense that it's hard to imagine there aren’t already deep-background talks being held.

Ask yourself this: Would MSNBC be perfectly fine with Olbermann partaking in “commentary”?

Well, there you go.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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