There’s something odd about hiring outspoken commentators and then getting mad when they produce outspoken commentary, but that appears to be ESPN’s modus operandi when that commentary targets its business associates. Shortly after driving Bill Simmons out after he spoke his mind about Roger Goodell, the company appears set to push Keith Olbermann out once his contract expires in August unless he eliminates “commentary” on his nightly Olbermann show. (What’s going to be left if he takes out the commentary? Just Keithlights?) As Marisa Guthrie of The Hollywood Reporter writes, Olbermann’s comments about Goodell and the NFL seem to be at the centre of this:

ESPN and Keith Olbermann may be headed toward a tough negotiation to keep the outspoken host on the sports network. Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that ESPN has floated a highly problematic condition for an extension of Olbermann’s initial two-year deal: that he cease engaging in “commentary” on his ESPN2 program.

The issue likely stems from Olbermann’s critical assessment of the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal that exploded last summer when an elevator video of Rice punching then-fiancee Janay Palmer in the face surfaced after the NFL had imposed a slap-on-the-wrist, two game suspension on the Baltimore Ravens star running back. Olbermann repeatedly hammered NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In a lengthy commentary at the top of his Aug. 1 broadcast, he called on the commissioner to “resign” after what Olbermann described as a “weak, damaging and almost enabling reaction” to the episode.

It’s not like Olbermann’s commentaries air uncensored in the first place; Guthrie adds that sources tell her ESPN producers vet his commentaries and ask for changes. Apparently that’s no longer enough, though. What’s particularly fascinating here is that this doesn’t appear to be just a preemptive strike to avoid future NFL backlash, but ESPN executives taking action to repair that relationship after what they see as punitive action from the league:

ESPN walks a particularly fine line in how its reporters and personalities handle the professional sports leagues that are so critical to the network’s success. ESPN’s Monday Night Football deal (which extends through 20121) is worth $15.2 billion to the NFL. It is the richest rights deal among the NFL’s TV partners – which also includes CBS, Fox and NBC – in part because it comes with extensive highlight rights critical to feeding content to ESPN’s myriad sports programs. ESPN has had MNF since 2006, the current deal represented an increase of more than 70 percent ($1.9 billion per year up from $1.1 billion under the previous agreement). And while NFL schedulers have historically worked to spread marquee match-ups among its TV partners, the upcoming MNF schedule is viewed one pointedly lacking in high-interest games. And multiple sources inside ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters believe the “terrible” schedule is “pay back for Simmons and Olbermann,” as one source put it. 

If that’s what’s driving this move, there’s more reason than ever for ESPN viewers to be skeptical of how the company’s business interests overlap with its editorial side. We know ESPN programming has been influenced by the NFL in the past, most notably with the 2004 cancellation of Playmakers (where they specifically cited the NFL’s objections, and where supposed journalist Chris Berman took up the league’s cause without even watching the program) and with the 2013 move to pull out of the League Of Denial concussion documentary (ESPN executives have denied the NFL made them do it, but there’s strong evidence the league put pressure on them). That doesn’t mean that ESPN always covers the NFL poorly; in fact, they contributed some of the most crucial reporting on both the Ray Rice case and the concussion saga, with programs like Outside The Lines and journalists like the Fainaru brothers leading the way. It sure seems like the NFL is pushing back at them for commentary in particular, though, and it’s concerning that ESPN appears to be kowtowing on that front, pushing out prominent Goodell critics like Simmons and Olbermann. If the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports is afraid to call out the NFL, who’s going to?

Beyond the NFL’s rumored involvement, though, if the Olbermann situation exists as THR describes, that shows off the dichotomy that exists in the upper levels of ESPN. On one hand, they want big-name commentators and personalities (that’s why they’d bring Olbermann back even after he “napalmed” his bridges) that will draw viewers and readers, but on the other hand, they don’t want those commentators offending business partners. (They can offend the general public, though, as the continued employment of Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd illustrates.) The Olbermann situation as described is even more ludicrous than “don’t blast the NFL,” though; why in the world would you hire Keith Olbermann, give him a show that has his commentary as a main selling point, and then ask him to remove the commentary?

For what it’s worth, ESPN PR denies the whole THR story:

As mentioned above, though, ESPN also denies ever being told to leave League of Denial. This statement only means there’s a discrepancy between the THR account and the official ESPN narrative. Maybe Guthrie’s sources are wrong about the commentary discussion, or maybe they aren’t. It’s certainly interesting that multiple ESPN sources believe their poor NFL schedule this year is “pay back for Simmons and Olbermann,” though. While that attitude persists, it seems hard to believe that ESPN will be calling the NFL to task much…

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.