The Critical 'I'

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Saturday, August 07, 2004

SPORTSCENTER REUNIONS, SANS OLBERMANN
In case you haven't heard, ESPN turns 25 this year. Along with several other marketing gimmicks to commemorate the quarter century, the Mothership is bringing back a few of their most notable SportsCenter alumni to do their thing in front of the camera. The schedule for this reunion, dubbed "SportsCenter Old School", next week is as follows:
SUNDAY: Craig Kilborn and Dan Patrick

MONDAY: Charley Steiner and Bob Ley

TUESDAY: Gayle Gardner and Stuart Scott

WEDNESDAY: Greg Gumbel and Chris Berman

THURSDAY: George Grande and Chris Berman
Nice to see pretty-boy Kilborn back behind the sports desk. He made a fan out of me with his ESPN work, and then later on the original incarnation of "The Daily Show"; I'm not nearly as enamoured of his current work.

I'm also curious to see the granddaddy of them all, George Grande, in action. He was well before my time, and all I've ever seen of him is archival footage.

The pairings are nice, but there's an obvious omission: Keith Olbermann. It's not like they forgot about him:
"We didn't want to bring him into the workplace," said ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro. "The damage he could do in one day in the newsroom could put us in damage control for two years."

When Olbermann was told of Shapiro's statements, he said he was a little surprised, adding he would have loved to return to ESPN for a reunion.

"Of course I would have accepted," Olbermann said.

If there is too much baggage, as Shapiro suggested, "the label doesn't have my name on it, it has ESPN's name on it."

Shapiro was open to Olbermann's return at one point. He said two years ago, when he was hired at ESPN, he met with the former anchor about possibly coming back to the network.

This despite Olbermann's surprising and head-scratching split from ESPN and some less-than-flattering things about the network's management in Michael Freeman's book, ESPN: The Uncensored History.

But time had passed, and Olbermann had written an apology of sorts, published on Salon.com, for some of the things he said in Freeman's book.

There was hope then, Shapiro said. But others at ESPN weren't so eager to forgive.

"I was blown away by how much that one meeting ... how people reacted to me even taking the meeting," Shapiro said, adding he had no idea how many "bodies were buried along the way."

He was undeterred, though, until a short time later. Just six months after Olbermann's mea culpa on Salon.com, ESPN/ABC president George Bodenheimer hired Lisa Guerrero for Monday Night Football, and the final piece of the bridge demolition disintegrated into ash.

"It's a complete repudiation of Monday Night Football's tradition," Olbermann was quoted as saying. "(John) Madden and (Al) Michaels should walk, and Bodenheimer should be led away in handcuffs."

And so ended Shapiro's flirtation with Olbermann.

"Personally I couldn't get past that," Shapiro said. "Even though he did leave a tremendous legacy and helped chart the course of the show, there was too much bad stuff that came with it, unnecessary bad stuff."
I think it's important to note how much Olbermann did for ESPN without getting much gratitude. Chief among this was when they tapped him to become the personality behind the launch of ESPN2 in the mid-'90s. They pulled him off the main ESPN channel for a year while they tried to fashion The Deuce into an un-sportsnetwork (an approach that's long since been abandoned, although in some ways it may have been ahead of its time, and worthy of a revisit in today's quest to re-attract young male viewers). He bitched about it long and hard, but did the work. The lack of appreciation led him to leave the network shortly thereafter.

I'm crossing my fingers on the improbable happening, and Olbermann will somehow appear on the now-open Friday slot with Dan Patrick. But I'm not putting any money on it.

This reunion stuff is doing the intended job on me: It's enticing me to watch SportsCenter again, for the first time in ages, and in the deadzone of summer, too. I recently alluded to how weak the show's become, and the reasons for it mainly concern attempts to artificially recreate the Patrick-Olbermann "Big Show" chemistry. This week's alum watching will be fun in and of itself, but will also serve as a painful contrast to how low the everyday rendition has fallen.