14 September 2011

Those Guys Have All the Cash

  • James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. Little, Brown, May 2011.

When I was a child, our television lived in the closet, emerging only when a “big game,” as my father still calls them, was on. This was the late ’70s and early ’80s, when to be a sports fan meant mostly to be a fan of your local teams—it was a different sports media era, when teams were still tracked via newspaper and radio, and so local teams were the only ones with whose athletes it was possible to develop, through regular contact, the kind of sympathies and affinities that make one actually care about these things. In Milwaukee, my hometown, our teams produced a fair number of genuinely big games during these years. I saw two of them live at County Stadium, sitting on my father’s shoulders during the 1982 World Series, but the game I remember most, the seventh and deciding one, was played in St. Louis, and we were forced to watch it from our living room, gathered in front of the temporarily liberated thirteen-inch black-and-white. The Brewers took a 3-1 lead in the top of the sixth inning, but their bullpen, threadbare from injuries, could not hold it. I remember with terrible black-and-white clarity Lonnie Smith sliding home in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game and the certainty that it was already over, and after that what I remember most is my bitterness watching the Cardinals celebrate their victory. That celebration felt like a personal affront, and in a way it was. Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor—these names marked coordinates on my psychic map of home. The other guys, meanwhile, were just that: others, beamed in from some strange and distant land. Their happiness was nothing more than the negation of ours. 

Later we moved from the city to the suburbs, and the television moved out of the closet and multiplied. Now we had one in the living room, another in my parents’ bedroom, a third in the basement rec room, and eventually, through persistence, I won permission to put the old black-and-white in my own bedroom. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, while sharing a shamefully dilapidated house in Madison with three friends (two of whom would be enemies by spring), that I got my first crack at cable. I knew what ESPN was at that point—but I did not understand, the way my more savvy roommates did, what ESPN meant. This was the mid-’90s, SportsCenter’s glory years. Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann formed the best duo in the show’s history, with their jazzmen’s ability to riff off both one another and the highlights, and a young, fresh Stuart Scott offered people like my roommates and me what felt like direct access to the urban black culture that simultaneously fascinated and frightened us. The wit and charisma of these and other anchors, combined with smart writing and a fast-paced bricolage production style that was very much of the moment, made SportsCenter maybe the best show on TV—and it was on five times a day! You watched it, and as you watched you acquired a familiarity with athletes from around the country (and from sports you’d never followed before) that you once had only with your local athletes. Over time you grew ever more invested in what became of those athletes and their teams on a day-to-day basis, and this investment in turn compelled you to seek, with ever greater urgency, the latest news about them. I remember the first time I ordered cable television on my own behalf, how the company representative, a faceless woman with a practiced monotone, prattled on over the phone, reciting the prices and programming details of the various packages she could offer me, until at last, confounded, I broke in: “Look,” I said. “The only thing I care about is ESPN.” 


I would guess that nearly every American sports fan born between, say, 1940 and 1985 has some come-to-Jesus story about ESPN—one that ends with the network occupying the spiritual center of his or her personal sports and entertainment universe. In their new oral history of the network, James Miller and Tom Shales do their best to, as they put it, tell “the story of ESPN.” Those Guys Have All the Fun is structured as a sequence of artfully excerpted interviews with scores of the thousands of people who have worked at, with, or against ESPN during its more than thirty-year history. Divided by epoch into eight chapters, from “1978–1979” to “2009 and Beyond,” this story is, despite the book’s heft (745 pages, to be precise), simple and iconic: a classic rags-to-riches tale takes the reader from the boiling hot Mazda with a broken air conditioner where the father-and-son team of Scott and Bill Rasmussen cooked up the idea for a twenty-four-hour sports network to what Miller and Shales describe, repeatedly and almost rapturously, as “world dominance.” 

By and large, Those Guys reads like a book about to be made into a movie. Crucial moments in the story—charging cable providers per subscriber, generating the highly coveted “dual revenue stream,” hiring veteran Rolling Stone editor (and legally blind albino) John Walsh to run SportsCenter, giving the program sturdier journalistic bones while its best anchors were coming into their improvisational and irreverent own—might not sound exhilarating, but by shrewdly arranging the interview excerpts into often tense dialogic relationships and always emphasizing the precariousness of ESPN’s maturation, Miller and Shales succeed in creating the sort of high-stakes conflicts that drive your typical Hollywood thrill ride. These conflicts are brought to life by an obligingly colorful cast of characters: not only the famously mercurial “talent” (in one particularly energetic moment, former college basketball coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight describes ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap, whose father he once counted among his friends, as a “chickenshit little cocksucker”), but also an even more motley group of insecure, bombastic, at times vitriolic misanthropes from the business and production side of things—men and women (but mostly just men) for whom no success seems sufficient unless accompanied by the failure of others.

For all that is easy about Those Guys Have All the Fun, however, there is also something uneasy about it. This uneasiness, I think, comes in part from the reader’s awareness that ESPN’s fulfillment of its hegemonic destiny—its “world dominance”—has been accompanied by a sharp decline in the quality of its on-air product. It is true, of course, that the network grew and thrived on the strength of its partnerships with the leagues whose sports it broadcasts and covers and the brands whose advertising dollars flow in through one of its two major revenue streams. But today that productive web of mutual interests seems to have mutated into a perverse clusterfuck of corporate codependence. Gone, for example, is SportsCenter’s pitch-perfect mix of improvisational rhythm and journalistic fastidiousness; it has been replaced by a manic jigsaw of segments and features contrived solely for the purpose of cross-promotion: “brought to you by” features like the “Coors Light Cold Hard Facts,” the “Subway Fresh Take,” and more recently those odd bits in which website columnist and occasional television personality Scoop Jackson makes carefully scripted (but nevertheless awkward) conversation with athletes and celebrities while drinking Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon. A similar annulment of whatever critical distance remained was put on garish display in last summer’s unforgettable (and unforgivable) LeBron James primetime special, “The Decision.” The yearlong James hatefest that followed perhaps only indexed the extent to which the collapse of the distance between ESPN and its subjects, the athletes, has reinstated the distance between athlete and fan that ESPN once helped to close. It’s not that the athletes are unknown now, but because they have become indistinguishable from the media through which they appear to us, they are fundamentally unknowable.

The other uneasy thing about Those Guys is the underlying dissonance between Miller and Shales’s little-engine, against-all-odds storyline—which makes the book so dramatically and even cinematically compelling—and the huge corporate mechanisms involved. Heady theory and also everyday observation informs us that capitalism is subject to an intractable law: keep growing or be crushed under one’s own weight. Both the overall system and its various corporate parts are sustained by relentless expansion, crossing ever more boundaries into ever more untapped markets. Thus the question of growth is only a question of distribution: where and how and, within certain parameters, when. With regard to the fact that then-gigantic Getty Oil almost immediately purchased a controlling interest in ESPN (and not long after shoved the Rasmussens out the backdoor), this means that while the story of how the network made it to air can be told as a series of skin-of-the-teeth saves and coincidences, the more prosaic story is that Getty funded it the way it funded all sorts of projects—absorbing significant financial losses at the outset in hopes of finding a new outlet for expansion. On a systemic level, it may be true, as Shales and Miller contend, that the odds that ESPN would achieve the world dominance it today enjoys were “somewhere in the neighborhood of a zillion to one,” but the odds of the growth to which that achievement corresponded taking place somewhere were, assuming the survival during that same period of capitalism itself, essentially one to one. 

If you boiled down this highly anticipated and heavily marketed book about ESPN’s rise to world dominance to a single point, that point would be this: with the right combination of good luck, occasional brilliance, and timely hitting, we all have a chance to beat the odds and achieve world dominance in our own way. But this is not true. This has probably never been true, and it’s difficult to remember a time when it has been less true than right now. In recent months, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets and plazas in Spain, Greece, Israel, Italy, and even Milwaukee. They are angry because they know that the one thing we don’t have right now is a fair chance at far more modest glories like job security, a home, medical care, dignity in old age. 

But then there is another story lurking around the spacious margins of Those Guys. I have said something about that other story’s beginnings—not in an old Mazda with a broken air conditioner but rather in a temperature-controlled Getty Oil boardroom—but there is also something to be said about its ending. In the final interview excerpt, ESPN President George Bodenheimer, who—of course—started his career at the network as a mailroom clerk, proclaims his faith in “this company’s ability to continue to grow.” That the company president should proclaim such a faith is, of course, hardly surprising—to say otherwise would be to sound the death knell, and one thing you learn reading Those Guys is that investors are always listening. Nonetheless, Bodenheimer’s predictable optimism forces the question of just how such continued growth might be possible beyond the point of world dominance. And to this reader, at least, it seems that somewhere behind, or inside, that question resided the real, if not necessarily most convenient, truth of our time.

Image: Image from fossma.wordpress.com.

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