Publish date:

The Grass Is Greener Finding serious news highly frivolous, Keith Olbermann returns to fun and games

There comes a time in the life of every sports journalist when
he or she unhappily concludes, This is no job for a grown-up.
For some--which is to say, for me--that moment arrived when
naked Mets catcher Mackey Sasser responded to an earnest
question with extravagant, premeditated flatulence. For
others--say, former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann--there
is no single flash point, just an increasing ennui, a growing
desire for gravitas. Says Olbermann, "I did not envision
celebrating my 40th birthday by making puns on athletes' names."

So the polymath sportscaster left ESPN in June 1997, at age 38,
to host a news program on MSNBC. "No matter how varied the world
of SportsCenter was, eventually you still ran out of new teams
and players and leagues to keep on top of," Olbermann explained
in The Big Show, a book he wrote with his former coanchor, Dan
Patrick. "Not so in news."

Wanna bet? Olbermann has hosted his MSNBC program, also called
The Big Show, for more than a year now. "I could not have
forecast, nor could NBC have forecast, how news as a whole would
change in that year," Olbermann said somewhat wearily last
Saturday, an oblique reference to prime-time cable TV's
all-Lewinsky, all-the-time format. In the midst of dispiriting
discussions of dress stains, Olbermann found refuge in the most
unexpected of places. "I started missing sports," he says. "And
I don't know why, because I very much wanted to get out of
sports. Now I very much want to get back in. Last summer I would
do five to six hours of research a week for a little 400-word
column on baseball history in the back of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
That probably should have been a hint."

Fish grow only to the size of their tanks, but Olbermann decided
sports was not too confining an aquarium after all. Last week
Fox Sports bought out the remainder of his reported
$650,000-a-year MSNBC contract, which still had almost two years
to run. In mid-December he will become the new vox of
Fox--specifically, of Fox Sports Night. His final show at MSNBC
will be telecast on Dec. 4. In the meantime, said Olbermann on
Saturday, "I don't know if my biggest concern today should be
the possible bombing of Iraq or the death of Red Holzman." His
heart was clearly with Holzman: Sports had won out over news, as
it has in nearly every other facet of society.

"From what I've read, Fox paid MSNBC $1 million to get me," says
Olbermann, who will neither confirm nor deny that figure. "Paula
Jones--after a year of hell for the American people--just settled
with President Clinton for $850,000. I ask you, What the hell
happened here?"

What happened was, Fox Sports Night has decided to make a run at
ratings champ SportsCenter. Olbermann concedes that any two
sports highlight shows cannot be terribly different. "But the
pacing of ours is different," he says. "The Fox shows are a
roller coaster and tend to make SportsCenter look like The
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." The battle has been joined. For now,
Olbermann is happy that the next time he says the word oral, it
will most likely be followed by the word Hershiser.

"I hope he's not insulted by this analogy, but I think Michael
Jordan had to quit basketball to see that he loved it," says
Olbermann. So on Jan. 27 Olbermann will celebrate his 40th
birthday. "By making puns," he says, "on athletes' names." He
can hardly wait.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO [Drawing of Keith Olbermann on pogo stick hopping on signs marked ESPN, MSNBC and FOX, respectively]