Dachokie's Reviews > Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

Those Guys Have All the Fun by James Andrew Miller
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's review
Aug 01, 11

bookshelves: sports

A Cavalcade of Egos ..., July 1, 2011

As a sports fan whose mid 1980s college experience included an addiction to the then-budding network, buying THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN: INSIDE THE WORLD OF ESPN was a no-brainer. Looking back, ESPN was THE channel to get everything about anything that was sports related ... and it had NO peers. The title of the book was titillating enough; we were going to get an invasive peek into the Mecca of sports media and discover the dirty, scandalous lives of those "fortunate enough" to get paid for being sports fans. Instead, we get a 750+ page monstrosity that comes across as a sports-themed manuscript of "Barbarians at the Gate" or "The Late Shift" ... a lot of boring big-business philandering, bruised corporate egos, chest-thumping over contracts and a rehash of scandals that, for the most part, were dead horses being dragged in for an unneeded additional beating. The book does however, have redeeming qualities that, in my opinion, save it from being a total snoozer.

At one time, ESPN had the formula to draw the sports-nut masses religiously to their programs, especially the witty sports-minded anchors/hosts who delivered sports news/programs in a vernacular that was both hip and entertaining ... non-athletes of whom the majority of fans could easily identify with. It was easy to view the world of ESPN with envy ... good looking men and women traveling the globe to bring us sports, sports and more sports ... a seemingly dreamy lifestyle. What THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN does is take a lot of veneer off the dreaminess aspect of the inner ESPN world by presenting a history of the network and the rather unappealing cast of characters that comprise that history. Here comes the not-so-shocking surprise: most of the on-air personalities are not such great guys off camera ... many are pompous and egotistical ... and they get on each other's nerves. Another no-so-shocking surprise introduced by the book: the on-air personalities' egos pale in comparison to the backstabbing and petty nature of the network's corporate honchos ... who, in all their glory as corporate geniuses, are presented as quite unsavory and unlikeable individuals for the most part. I found the book to be rather tedious at times and frequently found myself wondering whether the 750 pages could have been served better by being two separate books: 1) the more interesting and mildly salacious entertaining content (250 pages) and 2) the tiresome business history of ESPN (500 pages). To be fair, however, I thoroughly appreciated the format in which the book was written, as well as the accumulation of 500+ interviews that comprised the book. I believe both of these aspects were enough to somewhat appreciate THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN.

The format that authors James Miller and Tom Shales chose to use is letting the "ESPNers" tell the story themselves, in their own words. Starting with the networks gestational period in the late 70s to present day, the chapters of the book are chronologically organized by periods of historical significance to ESPN. The authors graciously lead the reader from topic to topic with italicized print that is followed and supported by the commentary of ESPN's vast array of personalities through the years (and there are quite a few). I really appreciated this because there is no need to interpret things ... we "hear" people like Chris Berman, Tony Kornheiser and Linda Cohn directly. While I thought Miller and Shales contribution to the book ultimately took a back seat to the voices of ESPNers, their portion was critical in wading through such a wide array of issues that were discussed. In my opinion, it was the italicized sections that provided the gist of the entertainment in THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN. The voices of ESPN, while candid, were simply not that interesting. In fact, many of the personalities come across as rather smug and it was easy to assume they actually believe their careers reporting on superstar athletes made them bigger stars than the athletes themselves ... a not so mild case of egomania is a recurring theme throughout the book. If you think Keith Olbermann comes across like a pompous jerk nowadays, don't be alarmed to find out most of his former co-workers thought he was one fifteen years ago as well.

While most of the sports milestones that ESPN covered over the years are represented in grand fashion, so are the gaffes, warts and problems within the network. The rampant sexism, boozing and drug use that defined the early days of the network are covered, as well as the gulag-like qualities of Bristol, Connecticut (ESPN's headquarters). Reading of this made me wonder how many times I may have watched Sportscenter in college and not realized that most of the reportable action wasn't occurring on a ball field, but in a custodial closet at the ESPN studio. And while the dirty laundry being aired is certainly entertaining, it tends to underline my belief that many of these sportscasters think they're in the same league as the athletes they cover or even worse ... Hollywood. I did like the fact that equal time was given to those involved in loutish behavior as even the guilty parties' commentary is included as an opportunity to excuse, make amends or confirm the behavior. Amid the mildly salacious content is the topic of sports itself and there are some defining moments covered in the book that ESPN should be proud of (such as Chris Berman cutting off his mike for some twenty minutes when Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gherig's record or its awesome 30 for 30 series). What I found very interesting in reading about ESPN's coverage of significant moments in sports is that the book triggered memories of me watching many of these events play out ... on ESPN.

What I found particularly bothersome with THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN is that so much effort is spent on the business side of ESPN's history ... a significant amount of the book's bulk involved the behind-the-scenes scheming of network executives (and they are big ones: Disney, ABC, NBC, etc.). While many of the on-air personalities at ESPN are shown to have sizeable egos, they pale in comparison the network suits, whose commentary in the book can politely be described as ... verbose. I found the business wrangling for control of the network and garnering deals with NASCAR, the NFL and the NHL often interrupted the flow of the book. An account of intense contract bidding would be followed by the story of Suzy Kolber's encounter with a drunk and smoochy Joe Namath. While I am not dismissing the importance of business aspects of ESPN's rise to prominence, I simply didn't need such a heavy dose of it. Additionally, I was a little perplexed in how much attention was given to some stories, yet others weren't even mentioned. For example, the Rush Limbaugh Monday Night Football debacle commands around seven pages of attention and the impact of September 11, 2001 on ESPN and the sports world gets only a brief comment or two. And the onetime ESPY award winning, ESPN highlight hero Michael Vick and his dogfighting was not mentioned at all ... maybe no one ESPN owns a dog . I was also remiss that Gayle Gardner, a true sports media pioneer in my opinion, didn't get more attention in the book.

THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN is a mildly interesting story (there are definitely some highlights), but I was disappointed in that it didn't excite me in the manner I thought it would and felt it was more tedious than entertaining. While ESPN is absolutely an icon and still may be king of all sports media, other networks have siphoned the secret mojo from ESPN's tank and offer a similar, if not better product at times. I guess, even as a sports fan, I don't see the greatness in ESPN that would justify such a hefty volume. Shoot, a majority of the ESPNers included in the book have worked at most all of the other networks ... ESPN is just another career stepping stone in the mega-media world. THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN reads more like an commemorative recollection effort for the benefit ESPN insiders past and present. On many occasions I felt less like a fly on the wall and more like an outsider being privy to a private conversation among people I didn't know telling stories that didn't matter much to me.

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