Network snooze: ESPN book proves long, imperfect

Sports fans watch Tiger Woods play during Masters coverage televised at ESPN Zone in New York City.

Sports fans watch Tiger Woods play during Masters coverage televised at ESPN Zone in New York City.

In the introduction to “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” the authors make a point of saying the book is “not the history but the story of ESPN.” In truth, it’s neither, owing to a tactical mistake the authors made early on.

The book, a chronological account of the cultural phenomenon that is ESPN, is told through a seemingly endless series of quotes from various personnel, with the authors interjecting occasionally to offer context. The authors interviewed more than 500 people, and some of the self-indulgent quotes drone on for more than a page. 

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Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN • By James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales • Little, Brown and Co., 2011 • 763 pages; hardcover, with photos • $27.99

In accompanying press materials, the authors say that they used this oral-history approach because it enhanced “verisimilitude.” In reality, it just enhanced the page count; the book weighs in at an untenable 763 pages – at least twice as long as necessary or desirable. The thought briefly flitted through the cynical region of my brain that James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales opted for this approach because it was easier than developing a historical narrative. 

Suffice it to say, this book is long enough, and often tedious enough, that I’m not even going to try to pretend that I’ve read every word, nor do I have any interest in ever doing so. Frankly, there’s no need to. “Those Guys Have All the Fun” seems best consumed by starting with the index, then cherrypicking the most intriguing personalities and episodes in ESPN’s 32-year history. 

There are only passing, and largely pointless, references to golf in this tome. Comedian Norm MacDonald recalled that when he hosted the ESPYs, he sucked up to Tiger Woods because “Tiger’s, like, my favorite.” (Come to think of it, MacDonald might have a future at ESPN if his acting career fizzles.)

Elsewhere, the lengthy quotes – which create a disjointed feel despite the chronological organization – lend themselves to abuse. There’s venting from disgruntled former employees, such as anchors Keith Olbermann and Jack Edwards, and revisionism by others for sundry embarrassments. For all of this long-winded verbosity, the book can be strikingly superficial. There’s no elaboration, for instance, on a remark by former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol that most of ESPN’s coverage isn’t “much better than some local cable operators.”

Still, there’s no denying that ESPN is a cultural phenomenon. Many Americans have grown up with ESPN’s personalities, fall asleep to the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” and block off large portions of our weekends to watch everything from Major League Baseball to the World Series of Poker on its various networks. While Miller and Shales have produced a decidedly imperfect book, there are millions of ESPN junkies who might enjoy picking through these 763 pages for some entertaining anecdotes buried within.

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