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Bring Keith Olbermann back to ESPN

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
Howard Kurtz says Keith Olbermann should be welcomed back to ESPN.
Howard Kurtz says Keith Olbermann should be welcomed back to ESPN.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: There's talk that Keith Olbermann wants to return to ESPN
  • He says Olbermann has been controversial at several leading media outlets
  • Kurtz says Olbermann has great talent and deserves another shot at sports
  • Kurtz: Working with Olbermann may not always be easy, but he can be worth the trouble

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Keith Olbermann -- formerly of MSNBC, formerly of Current TV, formerly of Fox, formerly of ESPN -- wants back in the game.

More to the point, he wants to return to his sports roots by reuniting with ESPN.

Now it would be easy to torpedo that idea by noting that Olbermann has burned bridges everywhere he has worked and could inflame things back at ESPN.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

But I won't. Instead, I'm going to lead a chant: Let's Go Keith!!

It would be great fun to see him holding forth again on sporting matters. Is the guy supposed to stay sidelined for the rest of his life, just because he's got a bit of a temper? Don't the fans of America deserve better?

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The New York Times reports that Olbermann recently had dinner with ESPN's president, John Skipper, who says they had a fine time. But they weren't just shooting the breeze: "Clearly he was looking to see if there was an entry point to come back," Skipper said. Olbermann, in turn, praised Skipper's "vision and charm."

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So to put it in betting terms, what are the odds?

"There was no real appropriate place for Keith to come back, nor did I feel like I was prepared to bring him back," Skipper told the Times.

Wrong answer.

ESPN is in the business of covering athletic competition, right? What could be more spellbinding than waiting to see whether Olbermann declares some jock the "worst person in the world" or, even better, grabs a baseball bat in some confrontation with the bosses?

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I'm being facetious, of course. But I miss the guy, even though there have been times when he has thrown brushback pitches at me. But I'm going to rise above that, for the greater good of television.

The thing about ubertalented people is that they're often difficult to manage. Olbermann is a great broadcaster, but sometimes he lets his anger get the best of him. He makes life very difficult for his bosses. The question, as always, is whether he's worth it.

2012: Olbermann's legal war
2012: Olbermann ousted, again

Olbermann worked for ESPN from 1992 to 1997, so he can claim, you know, it's a new century and all that. He and Dan Patrick were a very popular team as co-hosts of "SportsCenter."

But then Olbermann left, prompting an ESPN executive to offer this classic quote: "He didn't burn bridges here. He napalmed them."

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Abandoning sports for politics, Olbermann hosted "The Big Show" on MSNBC, riding the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky wave to prominence until he quit, saying he was "ashamed" of what he was doing.

Next up was Fox Sports, where Olbermann worked for three years. "I fired him. He's crazy," owner Rupert Murdoch later said. Olbermann has always blamed Rupe for his departure.

After a brief stint at CNN, where he had also worked early in his career, Olbermann headed back to MSNBC and almost single-handedly revived the channel.

Tapping into a surge of sentiment against President George W. Bush during the Iraq war, Olbermann's "Countdown" redefined MSNBC as cable's leading liberal outlet and boosted its ratings for eight years. But clashes with management grew. He was briefly suspended over making political donations, and the two sides severed their relationship.

Olbermann resurfaced with a $10-million-a-year deal at Current TV, boasting about his independence from corporate media as Al Gore gave him the title of chief news officer. But the marriage quickly soured, with Olbermann complaining about the cheesiness of the facilities ("a daily logistical nightmare" that "more closely resembles cable access," according to an e-mail from his rep) and management complaining about temper tantrums, a mug-throwing incident and days off. After less than a year, the two sides wound up suing each other last spring.

Now you might say this is a cautionary note for a future employer, and you might be right. But after a year of unemployment and tweeting mainly about sports, perhaps Olbermann has mellowed.

Watch: Should Andrew Sullivan have suggested Pope Benedict XVI is gay?

To be sure, ESPN has certainly tolerated its share of loudmouths, from the analyst who was let go for calling Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III a "cornball brother" to the commentator who uttered the n-word on the air.

Olbermann's problems tend to unfold off the field, not in front of the camera, though he's occasionally apologized for going too far.

And it couldn't hurt for ESPN to jazz things up.

Skipper isn't exactly raising expectations, saying: "There are not that many successful examples of people who have come back, in part because it's like water filling a vacuum. When somebody leaves, somebody else fills their place."

Sure, play it safe. Or throw the long pass and see what happens.

Remember: Watching Keith Olbermann is a great spectator sport.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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