ESPN: A Really Complete History
Wednesday - July 20, 2011
For those between the ages of 45 and 55, the history of ESPN is like the history of video games. It’s as unique to our generation as the Internet is to younger ones, TV to our parents and radio to the generation before them. One can argue whose is best or which is more frivolous, but each is unique and has changed how we have been informed and entertained.
ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun, Inside the World of ESPN chronicles that history in all its groundbreaking glory and its self-induced infamy. Unique to this historical record, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales keep the story in the hands of current and former ESPN employees, whose quotes make up perhaps 98 percent of the text. The authors’ comments are left to introducing new topics, establishing timelines or attempting to explain moves and thought processes like the rampant sexual harassment in its early years which led to a policy that seems to have eliminated any professional standard of dress for women, while making any comment against such clothing choices a punishable offense.
Because of the completeness of the reporting and the unique history of the network, the book will inherently disappoint large pockets of readers whose interests go no further than Chris Berman talking about how NFL Primetime “made football famous” or how Mike Tirico helped sabotage Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football. Which is a shame, because the financiers and managers who dominate the first 130 pages and who took the crazy idea of a 24-hour sports network from concept to completion, are as interesting, talented, flawed and selfpromoting as any who have sat behind the SportsCenter desk.
The concept of ESPN was created by fatherand-son team Bill and Scott Rasmussen, who had produced local sports programing in Connecticut, and when not creating networks were fighting each other like two dogs over a bone. Stuart Evey, vice president of Getty Oil, came up with the cash for 80 percent ownership of the network. He used his position as a Getty family confidant, whose part-time job was to cover up for George Getty’s erratic behavior, to finance his life of wine, women, song and sports. Of course, Rush Limbaugh makes an appearance, as does billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who while never interviewed, makes several appearances as a major behind-the-scene decider and consultant.
The editorial decision to let quotes tell the story in the 745-page book brings decidedly good and bad results. This literary form at its best allows for uncompromised insight into the thought processes of those involved. At its worst, the method allows individuals to use the book as a vehicle to publish their resume while presenting themselves as levelheaded, wart-free saints. A high point is Jeremy Schaap recalling his interview with former world chess champion Bobby Fischer. In 1972, at the age of 29, Fischer did the nearly unthinkable beating Russian Boris Spassky for the title. The Cold War implications made the contest the most famed chess matchup in history. By the time Schaap caught up with him in 2004, Fischer was a recluse whose only public statements were anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. rants strange comments for someone who was himself a Jew. Schaap’s recollection of sitting across Fischer as he called his late father, Dick Schaap, “a typical Jewish snake” and ESPN’s coverage of the story was a network milestone.
The downsides were many: Berman feeling ESPN never had his back when it came to criticism or how “Several people changed their vote because they said McCain was nicer to me than Obama was.” Stephen A. Smith complaining how his contract (“Not many people are talented enough to have five jobs but I did.”) wasn’t renewed for reasons he hints at but never devulges. Or Jim Gray’s Pollyannaish recollection of “The Decision” and how his critics are just jealous of his career: “There isn’t a track record like this in sports.”
ESPN’s blurring of the line between news and entertainment and its monopolistic tendencies have been rightly criticized.
But one must acknowledge the network got to its position of influence by making tremendous hires who dared to take chances.
The network has had its share of duds. The ESPN phone, of which Steve Jobs said to ESPN president George Bodenheimer, “Your phone is the dumbest f***ing idea I ever heard of,” is just one example. But to its credit, ESPN has used these failures to create new products and programs or improve existing ones.
ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun is not a light weekend read, but a thorough look at a network that has not just reflected the current culture, but changed it in ways both good and bad.
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