Are they having fun yet? Book goes inside ESPN, warts and all

Posted: May 31, 2011

WHEN Tony Kornheiser worked "Monday Night Football" with Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski, it was so cold in the booth the mountains on the Coors labels turned blue instantly.

It's all there in the new, 745-page doorstop of a book about ESPN, patched together by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.

The title is "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" and I'm baffled, trying to figure out which guys have any of the fun. In the book, the guys come across, in their own words, as whiners, egotists, chauvinistic pigs, lugging petty grievances around like so many tattered blankees. And that doesn't include Keith Olbermann, who gives narcissism a bad name.

Kornheiser was a terrific writer for the Washington Post for decades. Could grind a sacred cow into hamburger in 1,500 words or less. Smart, neurotic, rumpled. ESPN gave him an offer he couldn't refuse even though he has a crippling fear of flying, among other phobias.

What were they thinking? The book is crammed with WWTT moments, some of them turning into triumphs, some into ashes. Kornheiser told the world, proudly, that he never watched "Monday Night Football" because it ran past his bedtime. When the players huddled, Kornheiser thought they were talking about him.

Tirico, and the rest of the civilized world, knew Tony had never played or coached football. He couldn't figure out what kind of straight line he could throw Kornheiser and after about 11 minutes of the first game, he quit trying.

After three brutal seasons, they paroled Kornheiser and put him back doing what he does best, arguing shrilly with Mike Wilbon on "Pardon the Interruption." It works because they put a ticking clock on every subject, knowing the average viewer has the attention span of a cricket.

They replaced Kornheiser with Jon Gruden on "Monday Night Football," which means they've got two inside-football guys in the booth now, but the mood is lighter because Tirico chuckles when Gruden clears his throat.

They still drag in celebrity guests at awkward moments (any time after the opening kickoff is an awkward moment), but not Jimmy Kimmel anymore, and that's not a bad thing.

It's a strange book, snippets of interviews, one after another like a quilt or a ransom note, the occasional italicized commentary from the authors to fill in gaps in the narrative. There are booze and sex episodes scattered through the book, with the bad behavior blamed on culture-parched Bristol, Conn., the network's headquarters.

Near the end, the authors justify the length and contents of the book, describing ESPN as "a big deal." Turns out the total number of sports now aired by ESPN is 65. The number of countries receiving ESPN is 200. And the number of languages in which ESPN telecasts is 16.

"Not to be forgotten," the authors lecture, "approximately $4 of every monthly cable bill in the U.S. goes to ESPN . . . Today ESPN is worth more than the entire NFL; worth more than Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL combined."

I have never watched the ESPY telecast. God willing, I will never break that streak. I hate "Around the Horn" but I loved some of those documentaries produced for "30 for 30."

I think Bob Ley does a terrific job on "Outside the Lines." I think Jeremy Schaap is an outstanding reporter and I cringed reading once again about the clumsy sitdown with Bobby Knight and exulted reading about the chaotic press conference featuring Bobby Fischer.

I had never heard of Karie Ross, an early anchor. Turns out she blew the whistle on sexual harassment early on. They listened. And then they did not renew her contract.

I did not recognize the Stephen A. Smith described in the book. I did not know that Jason Whitlock's take on the steroid issue angered producer Joe Valerio and panelist Mike Lupica to the point where he was booted off "The Sports Reporters."

I'm happy that Suzy Kolber and Andrea Kremer are treated kindly in the book. I found out more about Erin Andrews than I really wanted to know. I still can't believe that Kornheiser got suspended for 2 weeks for ranting about Hannah Storm's fashion sense.

It's all there, in the thick book about this only-in-America phenomenon, a network devoted to all sports, all the time, trying to hang on to some journalistic integrity while in bed with sports leagues, which can be tougher than spelling Ben Roethlisberger. *

Send email to stanrhoch@comcast.net

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