It was perhaps inevitable that an intellectual feast like Herodotus’ History would be followed on my reading list by lighter fare–”lighter” in the figurative sense, as Messrs. Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller require a shocking 784 pages to tell the 34-year history of
everyone’s favorite the only cable sports network, an average of 23 pages per year of ESPN’s existence.
Add “concision” to Herodotus’ long list of virtues: he managed to cover the period 557 – 479 B.C. (with several long digressions) in 704 pages…in translation and with a 50-page scholarly preface, no less.
Completed: January 14, 2012 (#6)
Recommendation: Wait for the abridged version
Those Guys Have All the Fun is not quite as turgid as its voluminous length would imply. The book is organized around a pastiche of first-person interviews, with dozens upon dozens of ESPN personalities of both the on-air and off-air variety making an appearance. This style of long-form journalism bears some similarity to a multi-perspectival Cubist painting, and when executed effectively, as in Peter L. Bergen’s The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, the resulting product can be deeply engrossing and well-suited to depicting large and multifarious organizations like ESPN or…al Quaeda.
Economical it is not. Without the motive force of an omniscient narrator, this style of writing requires a barrel of ink and a banana republic’s worth of paper to develop the desired story arc.
All the great personalities are represented here, Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, and, of course, the inimitable Keith Olberman, this story’s anti-hero. Love him or hate him now that the artiste has entered his Lunatic Fringe Period, during his heyday in the mid-1990s, Olberman perfected the sardonic SportsCenter tone that remains the network’s hallmark to this day. Recalling the descent of this once great wit into the gnarled and curmudgeonly persona he has since projected on cable news programs is an occasion for regret for what might have been.
Strangely absent from this book are the well-documented antics of Chris Berman, which leads A Superfluous Man to suspect that Berman may have been as instrumental behind the scenes of this history as the Obama and McCain campaigns were in the hindsight savaging of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, respectively, in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. (Dirt-dishing for kid gloves treatment is a good trade in many walks of life.)
Berman, apparently quite unconsciously, deals himself the greatest blow when sympathetically recalling the case of a woman who challenged ESPN’s allegedly swinish and chauvinistic culture at a network-wide meeting (emphasis mine):
CHRIS BERMAN: I was not at the cafeteria meeting, but Karie was right, I’m sure of that. I liked her. She was a great-looking woman; still is, the last time I saw her. As far as the women were concerned, I will say this: we looked out for each other. If somebody had a problem, a couple of the guys took care of it. If I talked to someone, I would say, “Take it easy. We’re all still friends. Don’t make anybody uncomfortable here.” If someone was uncomfortable and they came to the right people, it was “Cut that shit out.” If there were a couple of the camera ladies having trouble with some guys, they would let the right people know about it and it was policed. The right guys didn’t stand for that. But maybe I was naive.
With friends like these, ladies…
Easily the most thoughtful line in the entire book is delivered by Bill Wolff, a former ESPN producer (emphasis mine, again):
When they try to make these guys [i.e., professional athletes] into complicated superstars, they’re not that complicated. You know what they like to do? Play sports, make lots of money, and do lots of stuff. It’s not that exciting. I mean they really don’t have anything to say. Athletes generally, there are like a half dozen that—Charles Barkley is always fun to talk to but mainly, try Joe Montana as a football analyst, he was the biggest snore of all time. He’s a brilliant football player and probably the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a lousy TV analyst because jocks don’t have anything to say. They’re jocks. You can tell who the eight guys were who were great talkers; they’re the ones who wound up on TV. The other ten thousand aren’t worth talking to.
The men and women who made ESPN into a sports and entertainment juggernaut are certainly at least as worth talking to as the athletes they cover, but the prospective Reader should bear Wolff’s word to the wise in mind when hovering over that “Buy Now With One Click” button.