ESPN: Mea culpa

The story behind my tumultuous departure from the sports channel.

Published November 18, 2002 6:00AM (EST)

A long, long time ago, one of my bosses at ESPN told me that during times of contention, I always showed too much backbone.

Well, he was damned right.

A whining sacroiliac sent me to the chiropractor's last week and the X-rays proved my old boss literally correct. I am part of that hidden minority, the spinal mutants, who have six lumbar vertebrae instead of the customary five. I do have too much backbone.

This was the final sign that it was time to do something that for months has been crystallizing out of the gauzy haze of the unconsciousness that surrounds us all: I need to apologize to ESPN.

This began to become evident weeks ago when the deputy mayor of Indianapolis attacked Chris Mortensen, one of my reportorial role models. I once watched Mort protect a source who not only publicly denied what he'd told Mort in private but also questioned his ethics. Just this month, Mort went on the air and criticized the thoroughness of his own reporting on a story. Mortensen is the gold standard, and this hack politician slashed him and said ESPN was "a sports channel first and a news organization fifth." I was amazed to find my hackles rising and myself rushing to defend my old employers on my radio sportscast.

It all became remarkably clear after that. This isn't about my skeletal freakiness, or Chris Mortensen, or even, particularly, the primary area of wounded feelings for my former bosses and colleagues, Mike Freeman's book about the network. This isn't even about specific events or people, although nearly everybody at ESPN merits an apology from me, and I give it willingly and with great sadness, but with some hope that it will explain if not erase my actions, and might even be of some inspiration to any who might be afflicted in the same curious way I've come to learn I am.

This is about not knowing why you do things -- literally, not knowing for years and years -- and then suddenly beginning to scratch the surface of understanding. That earlier imagery about the gauzy haze is almost factually precise: It feels as if I've been coming out of a huge fog bank.

Enough preamble. After five and a half years there, I left ESPN at the end of June 1997. My decision inspired a lot of head-scratching, everything from graffiti on a wall in a syndicated comic strip, to shouts of "traitor" from a viewer at a World Series game. There have been a lot of explanations conjectured, by myself and others, but heretofore I have never definitively stated why I left -- in large part because until recently, I didn't really know. In point of fact, I couldn't handle the pressure of working in daily long-form television, and what was worse, I didn't know I couldn't handle it.

Not the broadcasts themselves, mind you -- I've rarely had as much fun in life as I used to during those hours on the air with Dan Patrick. I'm talking about an inability to digest all that led up to those hours, about which I had no clue at all. And unless somebody at ESPN had the insight to look for a big-picture pattern, nobody else had any clue at all. I think some executives, most notably John Walsh, had a sense that something was wrong. But whatever any of them said about "insecurity" or "perfectionism," I know I just took it as an attack and stiffened my extra-long spine.

On top of everything else about it that can destabilize the soul, television is fraught with a million commonplace things that can go wrong. A surprisingly large number of things can go wrong even when everybody involved is giving their all. It's the nature of a medium so complex it would've made Rube Goldberg blanch.

But I didn't see it that way.

I have lived much of my life assuming much of the responsibility around me and developing a dread of being blamed for things going wrong. Moreover, deep down inside I've always believed that everybody around me was qualified and competent, and I wasn't, and that some day I'd be found out. If you think that way, when somebody messes up, you can't imagine that it just "happened." Since they're so much better than you are, how could they not complete a task successfully? They have to be not trying hard enough -- and when they don't try and the show goes to hell, who gets blamed? You do.

In other words, you start thinking like George Steinbrenner, circa 1977.

Mix that in to the very public nature of the field, and especially the high-profile nature of a job like hosting "SportsCenter," and you have a combustible combination.

The results can probably be summarized by this conversation I recall from the weeks after the infamous launch of ESPN2 in 1993. After three hours of live shots failing, news breaking, entire 20-minute segments of the show being swapped during commercial breaks, tapes physically falling apart, and production assistants wiping out as they ran through the snow to try to get us information, the producers, my co-host Suzy Kolber and I somehow managed to cover Michael Jordan's first retirement professionally and entertainingly.

Afterwards, the coordinating producer, Norby Williamson, greeted us like the survivors of a World War I foxhole at Ypres. "Great job. Great show," he said.

"The hell it was," I said.

Wrong answer.

You suspend -- no, let's be exact about this, I suspended -- the whole human part of the equation. It never occurred to me that most of the problems were the result of mere events. Even the chaos that surrounded the entire launch of the experimental show "SportsNight" was merely the inevitable result of the fact that it was experimental.

And it never, ever occurred to me that if it failed, I wouldn't be found out, fired, banished, finished.

The oddest thing about all this, is that even when I left -- and in six weeks I will have been gone longer than I was there -- executives like Walsh and Howard Katz underscored that I was welcome to return at some distant future date, despite all the Sturm und Drang. And, man, I was usually producing both the Sturm and the Drang. Months later, Katz even approached me about contributing to ESPN Classic, shortly after the company had bought that network.

Of course, I could not know that the major bone of contention, the veritable sixth lumbar vertebra of contention, still awaited: Freeman's book. I should herein point out that none of this should reflect on Mike: He did an exhaustively thorough job, and more to this point, he didn't misquote me, not once, nor did he use anything I said out of context. Nor did he cajole or sweet-talk me into discussing topics I didn't want to discuss. Also, this isn't some kind of loudspeaker confession from George Orwell's "1984." I'm not going to renounce most of my criticisms of the place. I did not consort with Goldstein. I don't think I was wrong on the issues -- I think my methodology was wrong. Outstandingly wrong.

My answers to Freeman constituted the ultimate act of somebody who lived in terror of being blamed. After I left for NBC in 1997, I was unprepared for a question I would literally hear daily -- on the street, at events, even on the air on MSNBC: "Why'd you leave 'SportsCenter'?" If you make a decision in your life, even one as eminently logical and self-improving as "Why'd you start washing your hair every day?" and you start getting questioned hourly about it, you're going to start second-guessing yourself. I eventually got up to about my millionth guess.

So. The logic was impeccable. To answer that question, I couldn't take the blame (responsibility) for the disaster (career growth) about which I was being persecuted (sympathetically asked about). Why did I leave "SportsCenter"? Obviously, because it was a medieval torture chamber (fairly typical television workplace providing a high level of ego gratification and creative freedom).

There's a lot in Freeman's book that I regret. I won't inundate you with details, but a few require specificity. Referring to ESPN's executives, I told Freeman that "other than Steve Anderson, I don't think any of them are any good." Well, that was ridiculous then and it is ridiculous now. Without even judging how good they were, just to keep a monolith like ESPN on the air every day requires as many good executives as they have at NORAD.

As suggested earlier, I don't regret my stances on the work environment there, but to say that some actions management took were merely "covering their ass legally" was to subtract the humanity from the equation. It never dawned on me that some of these guys had been thrown in at the deep end of the pool, or would have to expose, prosecute and fire friends and colleagues who themselves had done things that until a decade before had been standard operating procedure at every corporation in America.

I now read with horror of my ESPN2 co-host, Ms. Kolber, sequestering herself in the women's bathroom and weeping over how I treated her. She told Freeman that as things deteriorated, I wouldn't talk to her. She's wrong: I couldn't talk to her. I pumped up some small-scale complaints into a scenario in which she was at fault for everything ESPN2 hadn't become. I wasn't completely obtuse back then, and if anything would have cut through my neuroses, it would've been a colleague's tears. If I had known, I think I could've jumped over the fence I'd built around myself and said what the inner guy always knew: No TV show is worth crying over. Suzy: I'm sorry.

There are lots of little gratuitous shots in there that also reflect an insensibility to parts of reality. I get queasy at all of them, but one stands out as representative. Freeman accurately quotes me as complaining about how a labor-intensive participatory field piece I did in 1996 about what the first-base coach does and says during a game, got little airtime. A year later, ESPN ran a similar piece in which the coaches of the Anaheim Angels wore microphones. I complained to the relevant coordinating producer, Jeff Schneider, and he replied that the new ESPN-Disney-Angels connection explained why one piece ran and the other didn't. It is almost certain that Schneider was joking, or tweaking me, or, most probably, protecting me from a fact I could never have admitted to myself or have survived hearing from him or anybody else: My coaching piece just wasn't that good.

Several ESPN folks suggested to Freeman that I was trying deliberately to violate the rules -- appearing on other networks and writing for publications without notifying them just to tweak management. That was almost right on the money. But it wasn't as simple as merely trying to annoy ESPN or John Walsh or whoever else. It was me trying to give myself an excuse to get out from under the pressure of working in an environment of my own creation in which I daily expected the blame ax to fall. It was prepackaged sour grapes.

Oddly, I did figure some of this out then, which is why, even after we'd finalized my departure I went back and proposed to them that I do one show a week. That really was instinct cutting through all of these neuroses. That was, should've been, and remains my ideal TV schedule: one or two days a week, and the other five or six to remember that I'm not going to be blamed for everything by anybody -- even myself.

So, I'm sorry. It should have been done differently. It wasn't. Then again, I'm only finding out now about that extra vertebra and the extra steps I have to take to learn how to be, well, flexible.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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