Really, What's the Score?
Reading Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN is a part-time job. At nearly 800 pages and featuring over 550 sources, the addictive, eye-opening oral history details the non-stop building of a worldwide brand while revealing the egos and office power games that make working in the Bristol, CT-based cable superpower a blessing—and a curse.
Multiple people express fear over losing their soul to the colossal sports network, including those whose careers are defined by ESPN and its various divisions. “. . . Nothing against Bristol, but I do worry that it becomes a little cultish after a while,” Bill Simmons, the best-selling author and deity of ESPN.com, observes. “You go there and there’s ESPN everywhere. At the cafeteria, there’s Mike [Golic] and Mike [Greenberg] getting a sandwich and there’s [fantasy football expert] Matthew Berry and, hey, there’s [NFL analyst] Mark Schlereth. It’s really hard to think out of the box when you're trapped in that box the whole time.”
Authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales may have fallen under the same spell. Yes, they profile the good and the bad—if you can’t stand Keith Olbermann now, just wait until you hear the venom spewed from his SportsCenter colleagues—but they are clearly enamored with the company. “. . . Chances are, if you love sports and if you had the opportunity to join up, you’d do so," they write in the book’s final pages. “In a heartbeat.”
Perhaps that’s what led to the following oversights in an otherwise outstanding book.
1) A Lack of Outside Sources: Miller and Shales talk to scores of people who work or have worked for ESPN, but they skimp on informed third party sources who could attest to the company’s pop culture greatness or reveals its weaknesses. Currently, a handful of sports blogs eloquently defame the Church of Sports. The authors should have tracked down A.J. Daulerio of Deadspin—who has had a contentious relationship with the network—or Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead.
2) Sports Illustrated’s Failure to Buy ESPN: The venerable sports magazine had a chance to acquire the then not-so venerable sports network in the mid-1980s. Miller and Shales don’t mention it, but what’s more puzzling? Neither talks to anyone at SI or at a storied newspaper sports section (The Boston Globe, The New York Times) about how ESPN changed sports coverage back then. And now? ESPN’s online and magazine efforts have decimated their print competitors’ writing staffs.
3) The Talking Head Syndrome: Welcome to my squawking weekday morning routine. All I want to do is find out how the Mets lost or whether Knicks owner James Dolan has finally been classified as insane. But no, I have to endure anyone in a nice suit who can put together a coherent sentence—it could be a writer (increasingly common), a retired athlete, a coach—blather about issues and headlines for hours. It’s inescapable.
It is the ESPN version of the problems of a 24/7 news cycle: a whole lot of time slots and nothing to put there. From 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., ESPN2 features a simulcast of a radio show (the aforementioned, blandly functional Mike and Mike) followed by a morning news program (ESPN's First Take) and a repeat of said news program featuring various personalities pontificating on the same issues brought up on SportsCenter from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The afternoon brings even more professional yammering, including the minstrel show antics of Around the Horn, where four sports middle-age columnists from four time zones bray over each other for thirty minutes. Hand me two aspirins.
What we’re seeing is not accidental. In 2001, a “complete physical” of the network revealed the need for more original programming in these sleepy daytime hours. What’s original about a wall of squabble? How did we get here? And can someone tell me why I watch this stuff in preparation for the flawless Pardon the Interruption?
4) The Misuse of Athletes: Expecting athletes to offer illuminating quotes is a dicey proposition. Just ask any beat reporter. So Shales and Miller deserve credit for having skateboarder Tony Hawk, America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner, and NASCAR icon Richard Petty describe how ESPN helped their sports grow.
Then there’s everybody else.
I don’t need Shaun White and Dwyane Wade to regale me with tales from the ESPYs, the network’s pointless award show. I can learn the same things by gritting my teeth, knocking back a stiff drink, and watching Access Hollywood.
ESPN has changed the way everyone views sports, including coaches and players. It would have been nice to have these professionals elaborate on Wade's comment: “I’m a big fan of the game [basketball], but I’m also a student of the game. You have to do your homework. So I watch SportsCenter, ESPN News, and go on ESPN.com all the time.”
5) Michele Beadle, Erin Andrews, and The Unbearable Blondness of Being: For several years, Andrews was ESPN’s resident glamour queen—a blonde, statuesque sideline reporter who sent testosterone levels soaring. Too much so, it turns out. In 2009, a creep taped the former University of Florida cheerleader in her hotel room; footage of a naked Andrews then landed on the Internet. Around the same time, Beadle—pretty, blonde, and personable to boot—joined SportsNation. She’s now a star.
Beadle recently admitted to Deadspin that she’s not a fan of Andrews. Her take on her coworker’s invasion of privacy indicates as much: “I felt bad for her,” she says in the book. “She looked fabulous but it was such a violation . . . I think things might have been handled differently, but she seems to be moving on. Sometimes these things turn out better for people.”
This tiff between ESPN’s queen bees leads to a larger issue: Do female employees feel the pressure to look good, especially since Andrews became famous for that? Believe me, it’s not for her superlative reporting. She’s competent, but in the book she’s not as revered as Andrea Kremer, whom ESPN begged to stay before she left for NBC. Andrews doesn’t have Rachel Nichols or Shelley Smith’s impressive print journalism background. There must be a reason why Hannah Storm always dresses like she’s about to go clubbing.
Reporter Michele Tafoya touches on this subject with Miller and Shales, and it begs deeper exploration. When she started in sports radio in the early 1990s, her goal was to be a reporter like Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer, “women that are being allowed to age gracefully in their roles, for lack of a better term,” Tafoya explains to the authors. “I don't see that happening in sports. I don’t see a sixty-year-old woman being able to continue on covering sports, because I don't think that idea goes over well with viewers and therefore with management.”
Being a woman at ESPN is certainly easier compared to the early days, when monitors displayed The Playboy Channel. When the only recourse to address the rampant sexual harassment was for anchor Karie Ross to voice her complaints in the company cafeteria. Still, I pick up a Logan’s Run vibe to the place, where age looms over women’s heads like a guillotine. Tafoya can’t be the only one who feels that way. Suzy Kolber, who’s still with the network, was hired by former exec John Lack nearly twenty years ago because “she’s attractive and she’s fun and she’s got a sizzle.”
Clearly, the story of ESPN is not yet finished.
Books mentioned in this column: