Olbermann Urges NFL to Keep Gumbel on TV, But No Room for 'Rush Limbaugh's Racism'

Mouthy liberal former sportscasters of a feather stick together. On Wednesday night's Countdown, former ESPN/Fox Sports anchor Keith Olbermann mocked the NFL for even considering renouncing their deal to let Bryant Gumbel broadcast games on the emerging NFL Network. MRC analyst Scott Whitlock noticed that he tried to pile more laughs on Gumbel's apparently side-splitting comments that Eugene Upshaw was a leashed pet of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue:

"First, time for COUNTDOWN’s latest list of nominees for ‘Worst Persons in the World.’ The Bronze to the National Football League. It is reportedly considering dismissing Bryant Gumbel who was to do play-by-play of games on the NFL`s own TV network. Gumbel claims the league`s current commissioner owned a leash on which he kept the executive director of the very pliant Football Players Union. Mr. Paul Tagliabue called Gumbel`s comments ‘uninformed and quite inexcusable.’ No truth to rumors that union head Gene Upshaw called the comments, ‘Roof. Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff.’

But this afternoon on The Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio, Olbermann's former partner in the ESPN studios was offering air time to a different take, from former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith. A former players' union representative and a friend of Upshaw's, Smith hit back sharply to Sports Illustrated:

"Bryant Gumbel has fallen in recent times,'' Smith told SI.com on Tuesday. "He's desperate to have a respected, national voice again, but the problem is a lot of people aren't listening anymore. So you've got to say something like that to get attention for yourself. But he's misinformed."To me, this is Gumbel's Dan Rather-type mistake. He's someone who has been around for a while and has some credibility, but who wants to believe a certain perception. I believe part of it with Gumbel is that Gene is a much more powerful black man than he is. And he's jealous of Gene's power and position. I think Gumbel's even jealous of where his former [NBC's Today] co-host Katie Couric is, and how she's moved on to a more powerful position and he still hasn't."

After Patrick drew out Smith's vivid views on Gumbel, Olbermann appeared in his regular slot on Patrick's afternoon talk show along with Smith. In this venue, Olbermann played much more neutral than he did on MSNBC. He said Gumbel had a "defensible argument," but also insisted he didn't know which side was right, and Gumbel "may be entirely erroneous." But he said Gumbel was stating his honest opinion, not just settling a vendetta, and counseled the NFL: "It's just a comment by a sportscaster. Let it go."But Patrick made the point several times that Rush Limbaugh was fired by ESPN in his role as a studio analyst when Limbaugh stated that Donovan McNabb was an overrated quarterback because the media were rooting for black quarterbacks. Patrick said it's odd for a network to fire someone for being opinionated when that's what they were hired to do, be opinionated and mix things up. Olbermann wasn't having any of that. Just as the segment ended, he snuck in, that he'd seen it before, like with MSNBC dismissing Michael Savage: "Employers should have known what they were going to get," and added "Rush Limbaugh's racism doesn't have any role at ESPN, or anywhere else in sports."As Brent Bozell demonstrated back in the day, for Rush Limbaugh to state that sportswriters were rooting for black quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb was a simple, easily provable truism. (One columnist whacked at Tagliabue as "hopelessly white.") To point that out is not racist, and Olbermann ought to know that. What makes this odd is that just a minute or two before, Smith was pressing about Gumbel by asking Olbermann if he would ever go on the air live and say something about Bill O'Reilly that he knew not to be true. Olbermann said it's an important distinction, that you can make mistakes in live broadcasting, saying he said it was Tuesday on Wednesday night's show. But he added: "I don't think I'd consciously go out and ever give information I knew not to be true, deliberately." So what is with declaring Rush Limbaugh is a racist that should be banned from the airwaves?

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis