Over the past four days, I cruised through all 700-some pages of Andrew James Miller and Tom Shales’ new oral history of ESPN, entitled Those Guys Have All The Fun.
While the book was zippy and provacative, I confess that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated. Part of this has to do with the strictures of doing an oral history rather than a traditional one – narrative threads get picked up and dropped abruptly, and context is too-often scarce. The plus side of an oral history is that the reader often gets a sharper sense of the personalities and motivations of the figures involved, liberated from most of whatever the author’s interpretation of them might be. I now know who the biggest a-holes in the history of ESPN were, and these fellows have nobody to blame but themselves.
Another issue that limited my enjoyment of the book was that it seemed to run out of trajectory about midway through. The first half of the book follows the rise of the ESPN from its humble inceptions (conceived as a cable access-style channel covering the hotbed of Connecticut sports) through it’s rise to becoming one of the dominant forces in American media. We hear about all the people who mocked the notion of a 24/7 sports station, and all the seedy behind-the-scenes tales of unhinged parties and sexual misadventures from the network’s early days. Also, lots of business deals happen and are covered in mind-numbing detail. If, for some reason, you’re deeply interested in the changing business models of the cable industry, then there’s lots of juicy stuff for you here. I confess that I often ended up skimming through those pages.
The second half of the book loses a bit of its momentum, tracking ESPN’s steps since its mid-90s ascendance. The authors try to use the various management shifts as narrative guideposts, but this is only somewhat effective. The last 300 pages start looping through predictable patterns: people complaining about management, various episodes where on-air talent said something they shouldn’t have and apologizing, and finding out which people at ESPN hate each other (i.e. Berman and Kornheiser). In and of itself, it’s interesting, but at a certain point it becomes a little repetetive.
Still, the book is breezy, and generally enjoyable. Easy weekend reading for a sports fan.
Here are a few insights gleaned from the text, thoughtfully blended with lies:
-Here’s my impression of some of the major personalities after reading the interviews…
Dan Patrick: Down-to-earth, hard-working, team player. Wrote the textbook on anchoring SportsCenter.
Keith Olbermann: Incredibly smart, gifted writer. Perhaps the best SportsCenter anchor in the show’s history. Simultaneously, unbelievably self-centered and unpleasant to work with. Paranoid, accusatory, and thin-skinned. Suzy Kolber, who never has a negative thing to say about anything else in the book says, “Keith was an unhappy person. He made a lot of people unhappy around him. I’m sure he made me unhappy.”
Chris Berman: Every anecdote blatantly glorifies himself. Energetic, simple, and sincere. (He blew a gasket when ESPN lost NFL Primetime in 2004, and rightfully so. I always felt that was the best show on the network.)
Bob Ley: Smart and grounded. Company guy.
Stuart Scott: Thoughtful and perceptive.
Tony Kornheiser: Nervous and unhappy, and very aware of both. Difficult to work with at times, but gifted.
Bill Simmons: Big ego. Calls the shots at ESPN.com, to the annoyance of his editors and some on-air folks who seem to resent him. Insightful and funny.
Jim Rome: Surprisingly gracious.
-Numerous sources describe the boys club that was ESPN in the 1980s. Sexual harassment of female reporters was rampant and ignored by management. In addition, the women’s “restroom” was nothing more than a crude biohazard pit dug in the lawn behind the building.
-Some of the most entertaining portions of the book have to do with the behind-the-scenes antics of management figures. The recklessly hard-drinking, loudmouthed Stu Evey towered over ESPN’s first half-decade, serving as the liaison between the network and the Getty oil company that owned it. Inexperience be damned, he insisted that his opinion be heard on every conceivable matter and spends plenty of time congratulating himself for it in the book. Years later, Mark Shapiro, a young hotshot executive took creative control of ESPN while still in his thirties. While many of his programming choices worked brilliantly (PTI, most notably) he also burned bridges and kept everyone on edge with his blunt, abrasive style.
-In order to ensure that only the most sports-obsessed work at their Bristol campus, ESPN requires all job applicants to complete a difficult sports exam and apply ointment to Tony Kornheiser’s open sores while he groans his approval.
-The folks at ESPN shamelessly credit themselves for popularizing NASCAR, poker, professional monkeybars, and Christmas trees.
-ESPN made waves in 2005 when it landed the prestigious Monday Night Football gig, thanks to the aggressive negotiations of Shapiro. At the same time, he fumbled his handling of the announcers, quickly alienating both John Madden and Al Michaels to the point where they jumped ship to NBC. Things didn’t improve when Shapiro coarsely decreed that ESPN’s own Joe Theismann’s leg be re-broken.
-In one memorable scandal, Chris Berman got in hot water while hosting NFL Primetime when he threw to a commercial break by shouting, “Segregation now, segregation forever!”