The network framed its decision to let Mr. Olbermann go as a
simple business matter. "Keith is a tremendous talent who has
consistently done timely, entertaining and thought-provoking work
since returning to ESPN. While the show's content was distinctive
and extremely high quality, we ultimately made a business decision
to move in another direction," the statement read. "We wish Keith
nothing but the best and trust that his skill and ability will lead
him to another promising endeavor."
While the mercurial host generally behaved himself over the
course of his short return stint, insiders said that Mr.
Olbermann's outspoken criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
had ESPN higher-ups wishing that he'd tone down the attacks. ESPN
pays the league $1.9 billion each year for the rights to televise
"Monday Night Football" and a raft of related shoulder
Last fall, during the height of the Ray Rice debacle, Mr.
Olbermann characterized the commish as an "enabler of men who beat
women" before going on to charge Mr. Goodell with covering up the
running back's brutal Feb. 15, 2014 assault on his
then-fiancée. Mr. Olbermann subsequently demanded that Mr.
Goodell be fired.
In response to reports that it had been agitating for a special
contractual clause that would prohibit Mr. Olbermann from
criticizing the league or its figurehead, ESPN last week said that
this was sheer fiction. "Keith Olbermann has never been told any
topic is off limits for his commentary, nor has continuation of it
been part of any conversation about his future at the company,"
ESPN said in a statement.
While Mr. Olbermann this spring was briefly suspended for a
wholly unrelated incident (he'd pushed "send" on a number of rather
insensitive tweets directed at Penn State students), his two years
at Bristol were generally unblemished by the rages and clashes with
senior management that colored his earlier stint at ESPN. Sources
said he even welcomed a radical shift in the scheduling of
"Olbermann," which in August 2014 was shifted from late-night to
Mr. Olbermann's imminent departure from ESPN is only the latest
upheaval in a broadcast career that has been, in equal measures,
brilliant and erratic. As the co-host of ESPN's "SportsCenter" from
1992 to 1997, Mr. Olbermann and Dan Patrick reinvented the sports
highlights game. For a generation that had no use for the
starry-eyed boosterism of local sports anchors, The Big Show was
truly a departure. Funny, irreverent and endlessly inventive,
"SportsCenter" put the lie to the idea that TV sports coverage was
meant to shuffle dumbly around the intersection of hagiography and
But as would be the case at so many other gigs, everything went
to hell. Mr. Olbermann's behavior around the Bristol campus was so
polarizing that even the mild-mannered veteran Bob Ley would later
tell the authors of the oral history "These Guys Have All the Fun"
that when he eventually parted ways with ESPN, "we felt not so much
relief … as unrestrained fucking joy." (Studio host Rece
Davis recalled that anti-Olbermann staffers would only consider
welcoming him back to the network on the condition that they were
given the opportunity to punch him in the stomach first.)
After the ESPN marriage ended, Mr. Olbermann would go on to be
employed (and dismissed) by the likes of Fox, MSNBC and Current TV. According to
former colleagues, each stop along the way was punctuated with
operatic hysteria, seething resentments, slammed doors and, in one
particular case, an hours-long cross-country phone conversation
with the head of a network about the paint job in Mr. Olbermann's
Mr. Olbermann could not be reached for comment. While his
Twitter account remaned mum about the matter as much as an hour
after ESPN released its statement, he did fire off a trio of video
clips culled from Tuesday's installment of the show.
This marks the second major talent from whom ESPN has parted
ways in the last several weeks. In early May, the network announced
that it would not renew the contract of 14-year employee and
Grantland boss Bill Simmons.