Here’s Why Keith Olbermann Belongs on SportsCenter

In a medium populated by jabbering know-it-alls, Olbermann has been king in exile for 17 years. We’re glad he’s back.

Keith Olbermann is coming home. For men of a certain age (let’s call it super-late-twenties), ESPN’s announcement that the legendary “SportsCenter” anchor will once again sit behind the desk of the network’s flagship show is ALL CAPS BIG NEWS. This is the sports-TV equivalent of Johnny Carson coming back to “The Tonight Show.” Obviously, we’re excited. But we also have reservations. In the 17 years since Olbermann manned the “SportsCenter” desk, the show has been made over into a Disney-fied version of its former self, emphasizing personality over news and bright, shiny set pieces over actual sports analysis. But maybe Olbermann can change that. Here are five other things we’re hoping he can bring.

Humor: In the years since Olbermann and Dan Patrick moved out from behind the “SportsCenter” desk, the show’s anchors have become catchphrase-spouting robots that have more in common with Chet Harper than their forebears. Olbermann, on the other hand, can be legitimately funny without resorting to caricature. Watch this clip of Olbermann and Patrick plying their trade on a random night in 1995. They breeze through the highlights with plenty of quips and asides. But they’re not taking the show over. They’re also talking about hockey, which brings us to the next thing we hope Olbermann can bring back to “SportsCenter.”

Highlights: As a host, he’ll have little say over “SportsCenter’s” format, but maybe bringing Olbermann back will remind producers of how great the show once was and how far it’s fallen. Imagine if “SportsCenter”, the world’s foremost highlight show, actually emphasized highlights rather than obsessing over personalities and soap opera stories? Now stop imagining it, because there’s little chance of that happening.

Unrepentant Pretension: Has TV ever known a more pompous windbag than Olbermann? He’s like a human thesaurus, whose entry for self-awareness has been cut out with an acuminate skean. His signature segment, the nightly anointing of a “Worst Person in the World,” shows just how highly he thinks of himself. Believe it or not, this is a reason to love Olbermann. His remarkable ability to foment rage in his viewing audience may seem like a recipe for lower ratings, but in our opinion that sensation of wanting to punch the man inside of your TV makes for a fun, if somewhat stressful, viewing experience.

A Point of View: Unlike the current crop of “SportsCenter” anchors, who have all the insight of a beet, Olbermann is not lacking a well defined point of view. Given the importance of some of the sports world’s biggest stories right now (Michael Sam and homosexuality, Ray Rice and domestic assault, Josh Gordon and marijuana), it might be nice to hear someone with an thoughtful take on the story rather than a rote reading of the facts or a hot take preceding a public apology.

An Inevitable Meltdown: The first time Olbermann left ESPN in the late nineties it was after making an unauthorized appearance on “The Daily Show” and wearing out his welcome in Bristol. When he left MSNBC more than decade later it was after a suspension, public criticism of his boss and wearing out his welcome at 30 Rock. When he left Current TV in 2012 it was after internal feuds and wearing out his welcome wherever Current TV is based. If there’s any sure bet about Olbermann’s return to “SportsCenter,” it’s that a flameout is coming. Watch and wait. 

Photos by Jay Drowns / Sporting News