Like almost none of you, I have spent the last couple of decades following and respecting Keith Olbermann. His approach to sports journalism, whether you thought it was intellectual or pretentious, was badly needed, and it's hard to see a place in the modern sports journalism landscape where his influence isn't felt. His transition to news and politics paved the way for the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, only more sincere and committed. What separated him from someone like, oh, to pick an example entirely at random, Ann Coulter, was that he seemed to have a consistent set of ideals. His critics still were turned off whenever the humor would give way to hypocritical sermonizing, but since I agreed with him most of the time, I was willing to let that slide.
By all accounts he was God's original pain in the ass to work with, but that wasn't my problem.
He was also a pretty well-known soccer despiser, which we at This Very Website might have mentioned in passing over the years. He wasn't the worst of this particular tribe by any means - my least favorite was Gary Miller, you might have other nominees - and, to be brutally honest, was a time when the evangelical missionary act we American soccer fans would perform back in the last millennium rubbed people the wrong way.
This might be hard to imagine today, but in fact, American soccer fans once had the reputation of being touchy, oversensitive, humorless, tunnel-visioned obsessives. I know, right?
So I'm disappointed as well as annoyed at Olbermann celebrating his return to his 1990's employer by recycling his 1990's worldview. If he had gone back to MSNBC, and opened his show twice in a week with Whitewater or Linda Tripp, he'd have been hooted off the air.
What disappointed and annoyed me as well were the people saying things like "He made some good points" or "I see where he's coming from" or "Come on, it wasn't the low point in ESPN history, like The Decision or the XFL." When it comes to soccer, for whatever reason, Olbermann has always been delighted in willful ignorance, almost to a degree where it leads one to question his work on other subjects.
For those of you who didn't see his Hot Takes, I'll summarize them for you. Again, without linking, because he neither needs nor deserves the attention for this.
The title was "When a Tie is a Win, We All Lose." Olbermann was afraid that, because both Germany and the United States would have benefited from a tie, that not merely ran the risk of corruption, but proved it.
I realize that Olbermann has a daily sports show, and has a lot of time to fill. And Hot Takes are best served fresh, I suppose. But even at the time, this seemed like one of those subjects where we might have been better off waiting until...well, not merely for the criminal to be found guilty, but for the crime to be committed. Olbermann sneered at the idea that coaching and playing rivalries, or wishing to avoid a more dangerous opponent in later rounds, were actual serious considerations. Olbermann's graphic was "We Have Our Reasons We and We Alone Understand."
Germany plays freaking Algeria in the round of 16, for those of you just joining us. Maybe they too will need a last minute goal, who knows. It's still a SLIGHTLY easier ask than Belgium, and I think literally the entire world, up to and including the Algeria team, would cheerfully agree. Now back to our program.
We are forty-four seconds into a six minute segment. He had lots of time to get better...but if he did, I'd probably be writing about how much penalty kick shootouts stink.
"There's no tying in sports!" was a reference to "There's no crying in baseball!", and it's a good thing the graphics guy was there with the picture of "A League of Their Own," letting the audience know he was Making A Reference. Because otherwise someone might have brought up boxing. Or gridiron.
"I'm not a hater. I'm a skeptic. I don't care. Watch! Enjoy!"
We are fifty-four seconds into a six minute segment.
Usually "I don't care" is a pretty horrific sign of how much effort has been put into what you're about to read or hear, but maybe Olbermann is on to something. If someone started off a cooking show by saying "I don't care whether this crap tastes good or not," I'd probably keep watching.
I would think sane people have taken him at his word, realized he doesn't care about what he's talking about, and changed the channel.
He also points out that people have been predicting soccer's rise in the American sports landscape for quite a while now, and for a long time they were wrong. The same thing could have been said about landing men on the moon, or starting an all-sports cable network.
Olbermann also conflates the structure of the tournament with the quality of the sport, a theory that would have seen American football banned decades ago. NFL playoff tiebreakers are as arcane as college football polling. I'm sure the NASCAR points system is very straightforward to those who follow such things. If I were to say something like "How can the Vikings (or whoever) back into the playoffs?" or "How can Jeff Gordon (or whoever) finish tenth and win the Sprint Cup (or whatever)" or "Why are we voting on who qualifies for the postseason?", the fault would be mine. Especially if I frame the issue with "I don't care."
At about a minute thirty - this might be slow and painful reading, but I promise you it's Harry Potter and the Twilight of the Traveling Pants compared to watching Olbermann's segments on this topic - he brings up the West Germany-Austria disgrace from 1982. The "West" in the country's name might have been a hint that this particular Hot Take had a bit of freezer burn. If you were waiting when Olbermann pointed out that final games in the group stage are now played simultaneously directly as a result of that match, well, to my knowledge he hasn't yet.
"I don't think they're going to try to tie,"
Great! Segment over! The Brewers and Giants had some slam-bang action up in Milwaukee, let's - oh, we're still on this?
"I don't think they're going to try to tie, but then again, I keep being told I'm too stupid to understand soccer, so maybe we should just assume I'm wrong!"
You would think someone who models himself after Edward R. Murrow, and who has consciously portrayed himself as someone who speaks truth to power in the greatest traditions of journalism, would have a thicker skin when it comes to criticism from soccer fans, but you would apparently be very, extremely wrong.
The graphic says "He's an anti-soccer heretic! Stone him!" The same man that once upon a time would daily call for the resignation and prosecution of some of the most powerful men in the world is now complaining about getting negative feedback for not liking soccer. I believe it was the poet Jesse Pinkman who first said, "The hell?"
We're two minutes and nineteen seconds in to six minute segment. We're sort of close to being halfway done.
This is a man I once respected. I feel I have to watch. I'm not going to pull a George C. Scott in "Hardcore" here. I can face this.
"When the rest of the sports world, except for that one-time sporting event turned reality TV series called the Olympics, greets a tie by playing what we non-soccer fan morons call overtime, a sport with ties as an essential part of its international championship structure can never attain the level of credibility in this country that our major team sports have when we play it shop til you drop."
Whoops, spoke too soon.
I swear to God, that's what he said. That was one sentence, it took twenty-five seconds, it was more than seventy words, and it consisted of two clauses that have nothing to do with each other even if you generously substitute "While" or "As long as" for "When" at the beginning of that miscarriage. You can have dead heats in any racing event, you can have split decisions in any number of combat events, and how is one supposed to measure the comparative credibility of champions in this case?
It's almost as if the word was going to be "popularity," but Olbermann or one of his writers decided that was going to look even more unusually stupid than the rest of the piece.
Olbermann then complained about the referee adding a minute to the end of a game because a player subbed out left the field too slowly. One assumes this was Graham Zusi against Portugal. Olbermann suggests that overtime would have prevented people from feeling the game was rigged.
The fact that the game was not, in fact, tied when Zusi was subbed out sort of makes this point the homecoming queen at the Non Sequitur Prom. (Zusi should really have jogged off the field faster in order to discourage the ref from adding more time, if you ask me, but clearly no one intends to. I felt the same way about Beasley's injury in extra time, but I hesitate before accusing Mr. DaMarcus Beasley of fakery.)
Whoops, hold off on that non sequitur crown.
"No? Then soccer can't gain that kind of credibility here."
Remember when MLS had a visible countdown clock from 1996 to 1999? All anyone could talk about was how wonderfully credible it was. (I liked it, myself, which put that particular world statistic at me and Doug Logan.)
We're just over the three minute mark.
"Not even when it's asked to grab our attention every four years and our loyal group of fans would go crazy over and pronounce themselves instant experts in the World Cup of Balloon Animals, so long as there was a U.S. team and they can chant its initials and wave a large flag."
Two things. First, and most important, I would watch the HELL out of the World Cup of Balloon Animals.
Second, "not even when it's asked to grab our attention every four years and our loyal group of fans would go crazy over and pronounce themselves instant experts in the World Cup of Balloon Animals, so long as there was a U.S. team and they can chant its initials and wave a large flag," what? What did this sentence want to be when it grew up?
If you're going to model yourself after Edward R. Murrow, a man who kept broadcasting when literally being bombed by the god-damned Luftwaffe, the least you can do is keep your chain of thought on a late night sports show. Christ.
"What if the US were to find itself in Ghana's position, where a German tie would" -
Olbermann badly flubbed the phrasing of this, which, you know, it happens, when you're being bombed by the Luftwaffe. But, as literally every single one of you knows, this did happen to the US in 2002, when a Portugal-South Korea colluded draw would have sent Bruce Arena home.
You'd think a guy who was going to spend six minutes being a sports expert would have known that, but, once again, you'd have been disappointingly wrong.
Ji-Sung Park changed the course of American soccer history, as it happened. But if he hadn't, the feeling towards the US would have been along the lines of "Next time, win your damn games."
No one told Portugal and Ghana to lose their first matches. No one told Portugal to stink it up. While comparatively few teams are in control of their own destinies before the third game, everyone starts out at the same place. Portugal and Ghana gave Germany and the US the opportunity to decide the group, not the sport itself.
Olbermann then tells us that no matter what, the game will not grow exponentially after this World Cup, because the next World Cup is in Russia, and there's a time difference.
In 2002, the World Cup was held in - oh, what's the use. Whenever the Olympics are held across the world, after all, Americans stop caring - oh, they don't? Huh, that's weird.
"It can't grow without local growth. It has never had real local growth, and if you don't believe me, answer me one question and I'll shut up."
Spoiler alert - he isn't actually going to shut up.
"Considering that 25 million Americans watched US-Portugal...how will this create that surge in interest in Major League Soccer when the season resumes on...? Anybody? When does MLS pick up after its World Cup break. I can wait. Yeah, it was tonight."
Because that surge in interest doesn't have to be either immediate or exponential.
Olbermann is unquestionably intelligent enough to grasp this, but based on his embarrassing follow-up - he literally just reads out Tweets and tries to riff on them - it's doubtful he cares enough to learn. One might be tempted to point out that if Edward R. Murrow took a similarly lackadaisical approach to Senator McCarthy, America would look rather different today, but that's neither here nor there.
However, there is a happy ending. In the follow-up segment, Olbermann pilloried a Tweeter for grammatical errors in a Tweet. It got big laughs from his crew. When it came time to post the clip onto Twitter, Olbermann introduced it as "The Emporer's New Clothes." (He apologized for the error, but not to the Tweeters he mocked.)
If only there were other examples of karma swooping down upon its victims and carrying them off to feed its little karmlets. Rafa Marquez, your thoughts?
(If karma takes its revenge on that last paragraph by having Belgium beat the US into a fine powder, I disavow responsibility.)