“SportsCenter,” ESPN’s popular highlights show, is introduced by theme music that ends with six staccato notes: “dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah.” When some genius tried to replace the theme a few years ago, the switchboard ignited. “How dare you!” was a common complaint. One mother said of the new music: “My son can’t fall asleep to that! He needs dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah!”
That’s how thoroughly ESPN has soaked through American culture. Fans in every stadium hold up signs saying “SportsCenter is Next!” Shows such as “College GameDay” and “Monday Night Football” are must-see viewing for millions. President Obama fills out his college basketball bracketwatched by cameras from a media powerhouse that airs 70,000 hours of programming a year on eight different networks. About $4 of your monthly cable bill goes to ESPN, even if you never watch it.
So yes, ESPN is a big deal, and it is worth a big book. But this big? World War II might be worth 763 pages. The secret of life? Definitely. But this is a cable TV channel, for goodness sake, devoted entirely to sports. As former host Max Kellerman candidly admits, “The fact is, it’s a trivial subject.” Not only that, the authors of “Those Guys Have All the Fun” (James Andrew Miller is a journalist and TV producer, Tom Shales is a former TV critic for The Washington Post) have bloated the text with obvious and repetitive observations. On Page 607, football analyst Mike Tirico intones, “People come to the game for the game itself.” Sixty-nine pages later he says, “But to me, you come to the football game for the football game.”Really?
Even worse are the puerile comments about how “cool” or “awesome” it is to bask in the presence of a star athlete. Here’s former coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden on the joys of visiting Archie Manning, father of two NFL quarterbacks: “I got to . . . meet Archie and Olivia Manning in New Orleans, right there in their own house where Peyton and Eli Manning played catch in their backyard. That was pretty cool.” What was Shales thinking? If someone wrote those lines in a TV script, he would skewer their inanity. Perhaps Shales hopes the reader will understand that Gruden sounds ridiculous. But he never says so, and that’s the other problem.
This is essentially an oral history, with the authors contributing occasional commentary. So the book lacks a narrative voice to set the scene, describe the characters, pull the reader along. Authors are not just tape recorders with expense accounts. They need to analyze, criticize, validate their characters. Here, they’re often missing in action.
Still, they tell a lot of good stories. I laughed out loud when a football player tried to evade a drug test by substituting a friend’s urine. The friend was a woman, and the test came back saying he was pregnant.
More compelling is the tale of how ESPN got started. In the late ’70s, a father and son team, Bill and Scott Rasmussen, wanted to broadcast news about Connecticut sports. They soon learned that by using a dandy new technology — satellites — they could reach the whole country at little added cost. Their second big insight was that they could charge cable companies a fee for carrying their channel. “What [ESPN] did was a little like the opening of the West in cable terms,” the authors write, “because they enabled cable to become a big business.”
Above all, they sensed the huge market for in-depth information about sports, far beyond the few moments on the 11 o’clock news. “We were showing three, four, five minutes of highlights!” recalled one producer. “The conceit was, don’t just show me Emmitt Smith’s touchdown, show me the key block that sprang Emmitt’s run as well.”And of course, most of the viewers who wanted to see that block were guys. “We sold male eyeballs to advertisers,” says marketing director Judy Fearing. “Men are elusive. That’s the value that we brought to the table.” No wonder the network’s first big advertiser was Budweiser.
If guys watched ESPN, they also ran it, and that caused big problems. The Rasmussens located the business in Bristol, a remote Connecticut town where their employees had little to do except work long hours, drink heavily, smoke dope and chase any woman who came within range. This environment was “a big frat party” and “a giant petri dish in which misconduct could breed and thrive.” The most sensational charges (secondhand and unconfirmed) involve mailroom employees running a prostitution ring out of a company apartment. More serious and endemic was a culture in which powerful males used and abused females. Karie Ross, a courageous young reporter who publicly criticized her bosses (and then lost her job) says, “I don’t think a lot of these men knew what they were doing was illegal, but they should have known that using the influence of their position to date or get sexual favors from these girls underneath them — who had no power whatsoever — was not right.”
ESPN has tried to upgrade its policies on gender equality. Two baseball analysts were recently fired for mistreating subordinates, and last September “SportsCenter” was hosted entirely by women in consecutive time slots. The larger question is whether “the little corner store that has grown into an empire” can upgrade, or even maintain, its stature in a rapidly changing technical universe. Satellites long ago gave way to high-speed Internet connections. I’m an avid sports fan, but I haven’t watched “SportsCenter” or “Baseball Tonight” in years; I just go to my computer and dial up the highlights I want to see, when I want to see them. In the future, how many babies will need “dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah” to go to sleep?
THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN
Inside the World of ESPN
By James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
763 pp. $27.99