I spent the past couple weeks reading the ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun. Which means I spent the past couple weeks listening to the Bristol beau monde expound upon their own greatness. Apologies to the authors, but closing that tome on my Kindle and popping open the New Yorker felt refreshing, like diving into a crisp pool on a 100-degree day that reeks of swamp ass.
Those Guys is an oral history, but it’s an atypical use of the medium. Generally, it’s a method for capturing disenfranchised voices. Here it’s mostly powerful people, dissecting their own power. Oral history normally introduces focused, hyper-specific stories. Here, it’s stretched into an expansive, multi-decade chronicle. The book presents smorgasbord of raw material. Its assembly is not always seamless.
The method has its strengths. As Miller has pointed out, no amount of his description could accurately render the heft of Chris Berman’s personality. Oral history gives more nuanced, individual accounts of events. We learn not just what someone did, but how they felt about it, what they wanted to do and what they thought they were doing.
It also has its weaknesses. The sources taint any semblance of objectivity. Memories are distorted. Humans naturally process and recollect events through an artificial narrative. Oral history doesn’t pierce through this narrative. The author selects sound bytes based on coherence and framework, rather than verity. Distortion is heightened, not deconstructed.
Those Guys felt rushed for publication. I think “Jim Nance,” “Will Leach,” “Beano Smith” and 2009 Boston resident Bill Simmons might agree with me on that. Miller and Shales’ initial, tight narrative of the company’s construction devolves into a loose attempt to encompass everything. The material becomes abrupt and scattershot, devoid of meaningful transition or a broader connection.
Miller acknowledged at Gelf’s Varsity Letters reading that he already has hundreds of pages earmarked for inclusion and exclusion, a few weeks after publication, suggesting it was anything but a finished product.
It felt like an essay with numerous insertions and deletions that had not been read top to bottom. Some of the juxtapositions were odd. Whitlock’s explosive accusation that ESPN higher-ups essentially told him to black that ass up while he’s on air, receives cursory coverage. Immediately following is a protracted lament over the lost NHL rights. Apparently, Michelle Beadle’s arrival on campus was a far more seminal moment.
Those Guys often resembled the digital media climate it attempted to analyze. A lot of inflammatory, potentially interesting material emerged. It received, at best, a superficial analysis, before an inevitable procession to the next momentary fascination. Sensational matters trumped matters more broadly important. We delved on Bill Simmons’ twitter suspension. We’re left unsure why, in less than a decade, he went from zero to most powerful sportswriter without following a traditional path or even leaving the confines of his local Starbucks.
The reader is left to interpret a sweeping mass of information. As with the SNL book, said information can profound when the reader has an investment in a subject and unconscionably tedious when there isn’t one. If TV production and business deals don’t titillate you, expect to do a lot of skimming.
Whether Miller acknowledges the intent honestly is irrelevant. Those Guys Have All The Fun was marketed to create a reaction and the impact was largely negligible. Information was zealously guarded in the run up to publication. Review copies were kept on lockdown. Media wonks tittered about the Bristol bombshell within. Upon publication, the anticipated bombshell was more of a modest egg barrage.
The scandalous revelations weren’t so scandalous. Drug use in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a cultural universal. Sexual harassment at the company, both ancient and modern, was ground well tread in previous books and blog posts. The novelty came from reactions to items already reported. The on the record ones were, for the most part, underwhelming.
We knew Chris Berman was a blowhard with an inflated self-importance. We knew Keith Olbermann was brilliant, but, at times, a pain in the ass. We knew Tony Kornheiser was candid, controversial and can sound like a cranky old man (without F-bombs, that’s his shtick). We knew Bill Simmons hates being edited.
Those Guys brilliantly explains how ESPN came to dominance and a more than adequately illuminates the functioning hive. Where it fails is addressing that dominance’s ramifications, fallout and ultimate significance.
From ESPN’s perspective, there were no PR disasters, damage to the mothership was negligible and their most prominent critics just spent weeks obsessing about ESPN and its personalities while ignoring legitimate reasons for concern stemming from its hegemony. They are still having all the fun and will be for the conceivable future.