What Team Will Take Him?

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Is Keith Olbermann, to paraphrase the blustering Mike Wallace character in the movie "The Insider," destined to play out his career in "the wilderness of National Public Radio"?

Every time Olbermann leaves a job, as he did several weeks ago, when Fox Sports Net abruptly cut him loose, electing to pay out the remainder of his contract, the question of Olbermann's place in the sports highlights game--to say nothing of his off-camera combustibility--is examined anew. Is he a much-needed journalistic voice amid an assembly line of guys named Trey Wingo and Gaard Swanson? Or a talented thinker who can't sidestep his own arrogance--and someone who ultimately doesn't belong in the populist world of sports banter?

Say this, Olbermann has a rough-and-tumble reporting streak, and his highlight sound bites have the mark of clever writing. He once introduced a driver-cam clip of a NASCAR race by saying, "We join this New York cab ride already in progress." The quip was vintage Olbermann, mocking an innovation--the positioning of cameras in increasingly invasive places--that sportscasters lovingly hype.

For his part, Olbermann, at 42, is young and hirable enough to pick up and go somewhere else rather than bend to convention. And so he has returned to his native New York to watch Yankee games and hang out at Madison Square Garden, where his friend, the professional women's basketball player Rebecca Lobo, plays for the WNBA's New York Liberty. Saying he's received a number of promising job offers since Fox let him go, Olbermann will instead take the summer off, on his former company's dime. "I am on the Rupert Murdoch charitable trust grant program," he says.

How long Olbermann can remain on the dole of disenchanted corporate employers remains to be seen. "Keith could go anywhere, whether it's news or sports, where he's allowed to do his own thing," says his agent, Jean Sage. But Sage concedes she's been saying this for 20 years. Indeed, if Olbermann remains one of the more unusual figures in sports broadcasting since Howard Cosell, he has lacked one key Cosell ingredient, says Frank Deford, whose life as a sportswriter and commentator has spanned Cosell's and Olbermann's careers.

"Cosell had Roone Arledge as his patron," says Deford, referring to the powerful president of ABC Sports who protected Cosell during the broadcaster's heyday. "Nobody's ever served that role for Olbermann. If somebody did, then I don't think he would have had all of these problems."

Make no mistake: Olbermann wants to be on national television. "I think I'd like another shot at news--not news interviewing, but doing a news broadcast," he says. "Because I'm worried about journalistic standards, and this applies equally to sports."

It's a Thursday afternoon, several days before he leaves L.A., and Olbermann is having a bowl of his favorite granola mixed with yogurt at Pedals Cafe at Shutters, the chichi beachfront Santa Monica hotel. As a public figure, Olbermann is mostly seen at a desk, cut off at the sternum; in person, then, you notice that he is tall and a little awkward-seeming, his abs five cans shy of a six-pack.

To attempt to get inside Olbermann's personal life is to begin to understand his eccentricities. (He doesn't drive, and while it sounds like a phobia, Olbermann suffered a head injury running for a New York subway years ago that has altered his depth perception. Fox Sports Net provided him with a driver.)

When he got the Fox job, Olbermann says, he bought a house off Pacific Coast Highway. But he moved out after a week and a half, bothered by the nightly noise from speeding cars. He then decamped to a suite at Shutters, where he lived in apparent tranquility for 20 months, until the relationship soured, Olbermann says, over a phone bill.

"The place is going downhill and rapidly. It is going downhill and rapidly," he repeats. It sounds like a crack, but he continues. "I tell tales out of school, but among other things, they changed the rules on 800 phone numbers. They didn't bother to tell me, I was here for like a nine-month stay, and instead of being charged what had been the policy, which was nothing, I was charged $16,000 for my calls to 800 numbers, which were mostly modem calls to Century City."

Olbermann says he negotiated with Shutters for six months, at which point the hotel evidently decided that it was easier to forgive the bill and ask him to leave. "I was essentially fired as a guest," Olbermann says. "The only guest ever fired. Were this a pirate ship I could have taken over. I had the whole staff behind me." He was referring, in part, to the people who served him granola.

Olbermann moved around the corner, to the Le Merigot. Shutters, while confirming Olbermann was a long-term guest, declined to comment.

This, say observers, is vintage Olbermann--he could live at Shutters, for God's sake, and things would still end badly.

Olbermann had eight months remaining on his contract at Fox Sports Net, where he had initially signed a deal that paid him $8 million over three years. In a reduced role at roughly half that price, he had been doing the Sunday-night "Keith Olbermann Evening News" for the cable network as well as hosting the broadcast network's coverage of Major League Baseball. The "Evening News" was a nice vehicle for him--essentially a blank canvas on which he could project his thoughts, his image. Though Olbermann came to Fox from MSNBC, where he anchored the news-related "The Big Show," Fox Sports Net was hoping to steal away some of the brand identity Olbermann had given ESPN and its anchor show, the highlight-and-quip-driven "SportsCenter," where he was paired with the deceptively wry Dan Patrick.

Having purchased him for instant credibility ("Half the money you're making is to say hello [to the media] on the conference call," Olbermann recalls an executive telling him at the time), Fox Sports Net never really seemed to want his sometimes arch, sometimes goofy character. Did Fox really want a star anchor who delighted in tweaking the boys upstairs by reporting that the parent company might sell the Dodgers? (News Corp., parent of Fox and the Dodgers, put out a statement denying Olbermann's report.) "Both parties agree that, long-term, our goals are divergent," David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Television Group, said in a May 15 statement announcing Olbermann's departure.

Olbermann, of course, is more willing to fill in the blanks. Fox Sports, he says, decided to cut him loose when he wouldn't commit on the dotted line to a contract renewal. He professed surprise at the network's snap decision, and seemed particularly stung that it yanked him off of baseball just as Fox's "Game of the Week" coverage was set to begin. "The timing of it was their decision," he says.

Then too, plans were changing around him. Chasing the 18-to-34-year-old male sports fan, Fox is developing more of what is perhaps best described as the crazy studio show, in which ex-jocks and smirky sportscasters yell at each other about nothing.

Fox Sports Net is set to test a new show, tentatively called "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," as a late-night entry in July. The show might have comedy sketches, it might not. Presumably there will be ex-jocks, maybe mixed in with comedians, propped up by comedy writers and highlights and shouted banter. So far, the only talent hired is former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk, says Fox Sports Net spokesman Lou D'Ermilio. "The closest thing to compare it to is "Fox NFL Sunday," D'Ermilio says, referring to the broadcast network's NFL pre-game show in which the likes of comedian Jimmy Kimmel and ex-players Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long yell and laugh--again about nothing.

In this milieu, Olbermann is an outsider. The sports fraternity will tolerate arrogance, but mostly the kind of arrogance that comes from achievement on the playing field. Witness the howls that went up when ABC announced last summer that comedian Dennis Miller would become part of the "Monday Night Football" team.

"Every guy in the bar thought he was better than Dennis Miller," Deford says of the reaction. Miller, meanwhile, walked a narrow line between erudite, cocky comedian and relatable football pundit. Heading into season two, he's still on double secret probation.

Certainly, one of the quickest ways to alienate the fan--not to mention the corporate entities that own the teams and the games--is to report on sports in a way that suggests it isn't a life-or-death business (or worse, that it's corrupt). This is perhaps the difference between the popularity of Jim Rome (whose caustic radio and TV commentary is nevertheless infused with a heightened sense of fandom) and Olbermann.

Rome, you sense, wants to banter with hard-core fans ("clones," as he calls them on his syndicated radio show), whereas Olbermann projects, even in his funniest moments, distance. Would Rome's cell-phone voicemail pick up with a tribute to "Network's" madman-martyr, Howard Beale, as Olbermann's does?

Maybe Olbermann's predicament is an American thing. Attending the Summer Olympics in Sydney last year, Deford was stunned and delighted by a nightly show that satirized the rarified air of the Olympics themselves--from the merchandising to the performance of Australia's athletes. Called "The Dream," the show featured two hosts (and a bloated wombat mascot named Fatso).

Most shockingly, "The Dream" aired on Australia's Seven Network, the same network that paid to broadcast the Olympics and had every interest in promoting the Games as sacrosanct.

Try to imagine NBC following an NBA Finals game with a show mocking the teams, the players and the rampant corporate shilling embedded in the event.

"Australia reveled in its Olympics, and they also loved these guys, and to me that was not odd," says Bob Costas, who was in Sydney co-hosting NBC's Olympics coverage and also marveled at "The Dream." "I think there's much more room for irreverence and edge than sometimes executive types are willing to admit." Of course, Costas adds, given the billions American networks commit to broadcast pro and college sports, honest irreverence and honest reporting are at odds with the hype mandate. Who has time for commentary when you've gotta read promos for NBC's "Must-see Thursday" between free throws? As for Costas, he goes elsewhere to exercise that side of his personality--to HBO, where he hosts a show called "On the Record With Bob Costas."

Olbermann says he's had informal talks with Costas about becoming a contributor to "On the Record." ("It's just like Keith not to be able to keep that under his hat," says a source.) He also has a book due out next March, a collection of sports essays titled "If You're Scoring at Home (or Even if You're Alone"). The title comes from an Olbermann-ism during his ESPN days.

As TV goes, "On the Record" would provide Olbermann a forum where words matter more than they have in previous jobs. Once, Olbermann says, when he was at KCBS, he broke the hinge off a bathroom door in a fit of temper. Why? Lakers star James Worthy had been arrested in Houston on charges of soliciting a prostitute, and Olbermann felt the station teased the story during "Geraldo" in a recklessly unspecific fashion as: "Lakers star arrested on sex charges."

Whether or not you see Olbermann's outburst as erratic depends partially on how accepting you are of the daily butchering of the language on local news. In scripted television, stars rumored to be difficult are tolerated as long as their shows make gobs of money for the networks and studios behind them. In Olbermann's profession, the rules aren't really the same. As difficult as she was, you couldn't have kept doing a sitcom called "Roseanne" without Roseanne. But you can do a sports highlight show without Olbermann, because the games will go on, the highlights still produced, the ratings not radically affected.

In the end, it's only the format that lives on. While he was doing sports in Los Angeles, first at KTLA and then at KCBS, Olbermann was largely unwilling to do live remotes from the arena or the ball field. He was unwilling, in other words, to engage in the standard PR handshake between the athlete in the uniform and the good-looking reporter with the microphone. The fallacy of such exchanges is that they produce substance, when in fact the reporter doesn't really want to know, as a therapist might, how the player feels about his season. Likewise, athletes are routinely asked to explain physical behavior that is beyond articulation; they're great players precisely because they don't over-analyze how they feel about the pressure or the performance.

"He made a very good case for not going to the ballpark," says Jeff Wald, the news director at KTLA who brought Olbermann to L.A. in 1985. "He said he didn't want to get too close to the athletes, because he was afraid he would compromise his journalistic integrity."

And yet, if Olbermann is so obsessed with maintaining his journalistic integrity, you have to wonder why he keeps seeking out high-glitz jobs at places like ... well, like Fox Sports Net. Why not head to the wilderness of NPR, where pay is low but integrity is high?

"Much of the response I get ... from the things I do on NPR is people saying, 'I'm really not that interested in sports, but I like you," says Deford, 62, whose sports commentaries for NPR's "Morning Edition" air Wednesdays. "It's like I'm bringing sports outside the circle. Whereas Keith has always been inside the circle."

Deford's career has primarily been as an acclaimed sportswriter, including about 30 years at Sports Illustrated. But he has done on-air work, and his approach to sports is largely free of the shortcuts of cliche. You won't find Deford analyzing the NBA finals for NBC or commenting on college basketball for CBS. He doesn't speak the language, at "Crossfire" speed.

"I find him to be a very engaging guy, but then I've never been his boss," Deford says of Olbermann. The two actually did work together--back in 1981, when Deford was a commentator for CNN and Olbermann was a reporter, only two years removed from Cornell University. At CNN, he began to show his mettle with pointed coverage of the 1981 baseball strike and a satire on "cat flinging," a sport Olbermann made up to call attention to the absurdity of watching things like motorcycle racing on ice. Deford remembers him as "brilliant, original, thoughtful," but with an attitude to boot. "Here he was a kid, you would have thought he was just so happy to have the job," Deford says. But even then, Olbermann "already had the reputation of being the enfant terrible.

"I remember that," Deford says. "And there were only six people who could get CNN at the time."

To Deford, there will never be a large audience for Olbermann for the same reason sports novels don't sell. In the final analysis, people would much rather just watch the game than be told how to process it. To analyze sport, to touch on its social, psychological or even political dynamics, is to explode its escapist power. Rather, there is only room for smugness, hype or nostalgia--the worshipful odes to the greats as evidenced by ESPN Classic documentaries or Billy Crystal's "61*" the comic's exorcism of his boyish idolatry of Mantle and Maris.

Back at Shutters, Olbermann is working through his granola.

"I'm firmly convinced someday that the American Psychiatric Society will list [doing] television as a form of mental illness," he says. "There's bipolar, there's schizophrenia, and there's television. The three leading causes of mental illness in this country."

For the summer, anyway, Olbermann's gone temporarily sane.

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Olbermann's Stats

Birth date: Jan. 27, 1959

Education: Bachelor of science in communication arts from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1979

1998-May 2001: Fox Sports, Los Angeles, anchor and host of "The Keith Olbermann Evening News" for Fox Sports Net; host of Major League Baseball coverage for Fox Sports.

1997-98: MSNBC, Secaucus, N.J., host of news program "The Big Show."

1992-97: ESPN, Bristol, Conn., co-anchor of "SportsCenter" (co-anchor of "SportsNight" on ESPN2, 1993-94).

1988-91: KCBS-TV, Los Angeles, anchor, host of "The Keith Olbermann Show."

1986-91: KNX-AM, Los Angeles, commentator.

1985-88: KTLA-TV, Los Angeles, reporter and anchor.

1984: WCVB-TV, Boston, reporter-anchor.

1981-84: CNN, New York City, reporter-anchor.

1980-83: WNEW-AM, New York City, sports reporter.

1980-82: RKO Radio, New York City, sports reporter.

1979-80: UPI Radio, New York City, sports reporter.

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