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I just got finished reading (most of) Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by Jim Miller and Tom Shales. Yes, I bought it because of my not-so-secret crush on Dan Patrick and his voice (he's actually not in the book very much, but I suppose it says a lot about the book that I didn't care), but also because I used to watch a ton of ESPN, especially in the 90s. (I will never forget, Dan and Keith, the footage of the avalanche substituted for every one of the avalanche of goals scored by the Avalanche that one night. Thank you.)

This book is an oral history, presented almost exclusively as unadorned quotes from the over 500 people the authors interviewed, with very little context beyond the quotes themselves. It's really an amazing piece of work. The authors have arranged the interviews to present a historical narrative, often by showing differing perspectives on the same events. It's especially fascinating seeing what several people will say about a particular person, and then what that person will say about themselves.

I think the most surprising thing about the book was how fascinating the story of the business end of ESPN was. Matt Yoder has written an excellent review over on Awful Announcing that sums up how awesome a job I think Miller and Shales did in telling the story of how ESPN got started, how it grew, how close it came to imploding, and why it's such a behemoth now. I was prepared, from the reviews I had read and other things I had heard, for the book not to be all about the sensationalism, but I wasn't prepared for what should have been a boring company history to be so compelling. That was the true thesis of the book, showing how ESPN, the company, evolved from things like two guys buying twenty-four hour satellite access because it was only a little more expensive than a four-hour block.

That said, I also felt that the authors, while focusing on the company, also didn't flinch from uncomfortable topics like the excessive drinking and partying and also the rampant sexual harassment. They did leave out some lurid details, and there have been some un-included excerpts floating around that were pretty raw. Jim Miller explained that their philosophy about whether or not to include something hinged on whether or not it affected the overall narrative, whether it was part of something that caused a change or an upheaval in the corporation or contributed to a larger chain of events. One example Miller used was the story of one employee who had multiple girlfriends in multiple cities. It was obviously not a good thing for him to be doing, but in the end it was a story that only affected his personal life, so they left it out of the book. In contrast, when two high-level employees had a messy affair, that story ended up affecting the entire company and brought about a huge change in how ESPN handled interpersonal relations and sexual harassment. So, in it stayed. They also told a great deal of the stories about sexual harassment, because that was an ongoing company problem that only slowly changed over time.

But what really impelled me to talk about the book was the interview that Dan Patrick did on May 25 with Jim Miller. [Streaming audio of the interview] [Video excerpt on YouTube] [Full podcast of hour three of the show on iTunes, interview begins at 13:00]. Or, rather, what happened during the interview. Dan Patrick is a damn good interviewer. He's very, very good at getting people to tell him things, at making them feel comfortable enough to open up to him.

Watching Jim Miller turn the tables on Dan was eye-opening. Dan has been pretty closed-mouthed about the exact circumstances about his leaving ESPN, nearly four years ago now. He's let out bits and pieces of information over the years, but he's usually careful not to go into specific detail about his personal experience at The Mothership. It was really stunning to see Dan talk about his own massive insecurity about his importance at ESPN, despite the enormous hit he and Keith Olbermann had made of SportsCenter. Then he came right out and talked about how miserable Mark Shapiro had made him, which I don't recall him every having done by before, not naming names and not with that level of vehemence. Yes, some of it was in the book, but Miller pushed Dan on his insecurity, dug it out when Dan wasn't really eager to go there. That right there showed me why Those Guys Have All the Fun was as good as it was. Miller and Shales were, clearly, masters at getting their subjects to talk to them.

This can't really be an unqualified recommendation, because I'm not going to say "Oh, you will all obviously love to read 700 pages of interviews about sports and business and people who run a sports business!" but I did want to praise Jim Miller and Tom Shales for their work. This book is the culmination of years of effort, and I was truly impressed both with the skill that they showed in putting all the pieces of interviews together, and in their philosophy of what to put in and what to leave out. I'm also impressed with their skills as interviewers. I know that Dan, for one, didn't really want to talk to them (Miller said, possibly joking, that Dan was one of the hardest people to get an interview with). They also managed to get access to ESPN, and for that alone they deserve a ton of credit for sheer perseverance. Good job, Mr. Miller, Mr. Shales.

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jinjifore

February 2012

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