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.”