It’s a story even sports spurners will appreciate. The rise of an American corporate and cultural colossus, from a $9,000 cable TV start-up that no one thought would succeed to a media leviathan that encompasses six domestic cable networks, 46 international networks, a radio station, websites, a magazine, and a restaurant chain, and is worth more than the NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball combined.
It’s the story of ESPN and it’s contained in the 763-page behemoth, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales and former journalist and cable executive James Miller.
The editorial genius behind “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” Shales and Miller used a similar method, relying on more than 550 interviews compiled into a seamless oral history, to tell the story of ESPN’s stratospheric rise.
And what a rise. “Those Guys” is peppered with revelations about big egos and even bigger libidos, salacious gossip, sexual escapades, drugs and booze, backstabbing, and plenty of backstage drama.
One reason: ESPN’s infamously male-dominated culture. “The culture in Bristol was intense, and intensely male,” Time magazine mused in its review of the book. “Betting on games was epidemic. There were drugs. There was sexual harassment. There was sex in the stairwells. ‘We had no social life because we worked all the time,’ an early director of production says. ‘There were a lot of interoffice romances going on because you didn't have a chance to meet anybody else....’ ”
And according to Shales and Miller, in the early days, sexual harassment was rampant.
“Nobody has it tougher than the women trying to clear a path through the unreconstructedly male jungle of professional sports in general and ESPN in particular,” wrote Time reviewer Lev Grossman. “Karie Ross, an early anchor, describes male staffers flipping on the Playboy Channel just to watch her reaction; she wound up making a speech about sexual harassment in the cafeteria. Julie Anderson recalls getting hit on by Mike Tyson during his rape trial.”
Reuters praises the book for its warts-and-all portrayal of ESPN’s larger-than-life personalities. “Familiar figures are sketched out brilliantly,” Reuters reports. “Keith Olbermann is praised as the brightest SportsCenter anchor and described as 'dark' and 'a tortured genius.' (Sound familiar, MSNBC?) Chris Berman comes across as a pompous blowhard, yelling at Tony Kornheiser and dressing down junior employees. Rising star Bill Simmons is by turns rebellious (criticizing his corporate bosses), loyal (defending Kornheiser for "Monday Night Football") and petulant (refusing all editorial advice on his column).”
But in spite of the drama, the bad behavior and backstabbing, ESPN was and is, ultimately, a slam-dunk, scored by a bunch of people just doing what they love and not taking it too seriously. That, suggests Shales and Miller, is its genius.
“By the end of the book (at 763 pages, it could have been tighter) you're amazed at the disconnect between the chaos behind the scenes and the relatively slick end product,” writes Time reviewer Grossman. “It was amateur hour all the time, but the product somehow remained professional.”
It’s also the genius of “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”
Weaving 550 interviews into a seamless, entertaining, oral story (more a story than a history, reviewers have suggested) is harder than it seems – much easier, in fact, to craft a narrative in one’s own words. But Shales and Miller were able to get hundreds of people, from cameramen to on-air personalities (Mike Tyson), even Barack Obama, to talk. Even more impressive, reviewers say, it works – most of the time.
“The quotes flow seamlessly, and the voices are fresh and vibrant, but there are moments you wish the authors would referee competing stories directly, and the book could use a stronger organizational hand,” writes Reuters. “ ‘Fun’ is a major accomplishment. The depth and breadth of the interviews make it not only the definitive account of ESPN's first three decades but one of the best books yet on how cable shaped American culture."
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.