I (Ben) am two years older than ESPN, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that we grew up together. What began as a quixotic venture in 1979 — a Connecticut-based cabel channel that would focus exclusively on sports — is what we now know today as the behemoth that is ESPN, a brand almost indistinguishable from sports itself. Who could have foreseen ESPN’s success thirty years ago? Certainly not Ron Burgundy, who branded it “a financial and cultural disaster.”
James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’s book Those Guys Have All The Fun purports to be the inside story of ESPN, an oral history running 745 pages and culled from over five hundred interviews not just with ESPN personalities like Chris Berman, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann but also athletes, celebrities and even presidents (Obama, who fills out a presidential NCAA bracket every March). Like their previous book Live From New York about “Saturday Night Live,” Miller and Shales leave the telling of the story to the characters, arranging quotes one after the other to shape the narrative and interjecting in italicized sections throughout only to set up a certain topic or scene before retreating behind the curtain.
Each chapter focuses on a specific time period in ESPN’s history: the first chapter, “Blood: 1978-1979,” features the fewest recognizable names in terms of personalities or sports figures but is among the most riveting in the book, showing just how improbable a venture a 24-hour sports network was. Slowly some familiar names pop up — first Chris Berman on page 40, then Bob Ley and Dick Vitale a dozen pages later. The early chapters recount the unmemorable years when ESPN programmed D-II football and bowling. (Yacht racing would typically fall into the unmemorable category, but thanks to Dennis Conner and one of the most-quoted sections of the book, not in this case.)
Almost certainly because it dovetails with my earliest memories of watching ESPN, the book takes off in “Ripeness Is All: 1987-1991” and hits its stride in “Manifest Destiny: 1992-1994” (the chapter titles are a wee bit heavy-handed, as are the epigraphs to each chapter from, among others, Winston Churchill and Alexander the Great), a period of time which included some of my favorite moments: Charley Steiner losing it at Carl Lewis’s rendition of the National Anthem; Steve Levy misdiagnosing an NFL player’s injury (he meant to say “bulging disc”); Craig Kilborn’s brief stint as a SportsCenter anchor; the “This Is SportsCenter” advertising campaign; and the advent of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann’s eleven o’clock “Big Show” SportsCenter broadcast. Olbermann, not surprisingly, gets trashed throughout the book, and there’s little question he has a huge ego. (“My mother had gotten used to this attention-garnering thing of mine fairly early on,” is how Olbermann puts it.) But there are also several anchors, and not just Patrick, who stick up for him as a hard-working, passionate colleague who stood up to management.
The book delves into the many headlines ESPN has made over the years, both the ones it covered (like Pete Rose being banned from baseball, O.J.’s murder trial, the Atlanta Olympics, the Ron Artest melee), and, more often, the ones it caused (Jim Rome’s confrontation with Jim Everett, “Playmakers,” Suzy Kolber’s interview with Joe Namath, Jeremy Schaap’s interview with Bob Knight, Rush Limbaugh’s Donovan McNabb comment, the Erin Andrews scandal, anything that has ever come out of Tony Kornheiser’s mouth).
(Sidenote: I grew up reading Tony Kornheiser in the Sunday Washington Post, which my dad bought every week, and was a religious listener to Kornheiser’s radio program, which I thought was one of the funniest things ever broadcast. One of the book’s many themes is that the most creative and popular talent at ESPN — Berman, Olbermann, Kornheiser, Bill Simmons — are also the most antagonistic, and the ones ESPN management resents for not being “team players.”)
In college I frequently watched the two a.m. “SportsCenter” with Denys “Yellow Thunder” Lai, and we imagined the day when we’d both have dream jobs at ESPN. Those Guys Have All The Fun makes clear, though, that working at ESPN is like working at any job. Gripes about management. Clashes between corporate and creative. Preening, arrogant co-workers. Sexual harassment. (Well, there’s probably more of that one at ESPN than the typical job. Mike Tirico, incidentally, comes off like a supreme jerk. I for one had no idea.) Denys and I never landed those ESPN jobs, but for anyone who dreamed about it — or for anyone who’s ever watched the same “SportsCenter” four times in a row — this is the book to get them.