Keith Olbermann: ‘If I wanted to do politics I would still be doing politics’

By Alex Weprin 

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When Keith Olbermann’s new ESPN2 program “Olbermann” debuts August 26, there will be no question as to what it is, and what topics will be discussed.

“The key three or four words about this are, ‘it’s a sports show,'” Olbermann said on a conference call this afternoon. “The idea that I would want to do anything that was not specifically sports related–even in a political context–I don’t know where this came from. If I wanted to do politics I would still be doing politics. This is something else.”

That does not mean that politics or current events won’t be covered on the show, but rather the message is: this is not “Countdown,” the show Olbermann hosted on MSNBC for 8 years.

“If the House is considering a bill to make PED use a capital offense, we will cover it. If Barack Obama runs onto the field during the All Star Game, we will talk about it. If George W. Bush wanted to talk baseball I would be happy to have him, but we are not going to talk politics,” Olbermann said.

ESPN surprised the media world by announcing that Olbermann would be returning to the company 16 years after he left “SportsCenter” to host a late night show on ESPN2. He did not leave ESPN on good terms in 1997, and although he has contributed to the company since then (most notably a stint with ESPN Radio), it would have been crazy to think a few years ago that he would ever be on-air for the channel as a host in the future.

Neither Olbermann nor ESPN president John Skipper ignored that elephant in the room, with Olbermann saying “I don’t want that to be in the obituary. I don’t want that to be the end of the story.”

“It is as much about what Keith is going to do than it is about what people at ESPN have in their memories or previous experiences,” Skipper said. “Keith is committed to working through that, and I am in support of that.”

Indeed, Olbermann seemed contrite on the call, and committed himself to repairing any relationships that were damaged. He cited a “heart to heart” conversation he had with ESPN legend Chris Berman at the MLB All Star Game last night, and how reading an item about his departure from ESPN in 1997 made him rethink his position.

“Practically speaking, all that matters is how I conduct myself,” Olbermann said. “I can’t show people my attitude in my heart towards this company, and what it has meant to me in the past and what it means for me right now. I can’t show people that except by showing them.

“The great opportunity here is that I don’t have to ‘in theory’ be apologetic, or ‘in theory’ have to make amends. I can go ahead and do it, and I intend to,” he added.

His new show will air at 11 PM, except when live sporting events push it back. It will have a powerful springboard to launch from, with ESPN2 airing some US Open tennis matchups next month. Olbermann wouldn’t divulge any details on the format, but would say that there would be regular contributors, and segments “evocative of things I have done in the past.”

As for the polarization sure to spring up about his hire, Olbermann says it is nothing new.

“Long before I ever did my first newscast, let alone political broadcast, there were people that would not tune in because of my views on sports,” Olbermann said, recalling a Dodger fan who threatened to cut out his tongue over a comment about the team. “One thing about sports is it does transcend politics, and it is a place we often go to heal those wounds that politics inflicts on us every day, and I frankly have had long, funny warm conversations about baseball with [Former GW Bush Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer, who sat behind me once at a Yankee game.

“We talked for nine innings. If you were to tell me at some point in my previous incarnation that that would have happened, I wouldn’t have believed it.”