Inside the Church of Sports
A new history of ESPN shows how one religion got its start.
Sports make up a religious strand of American life, and their church is the Entertainment Sports Programming Network. In its 32 years of existence, ESPN has expanded from a cheesy tent-show evangelizing Australian-rules football and girls softball to being "the worldwide leader in sports"—a media empire with a presence in television, books, magazines, and the Web.
As have all great houses of worship, ESPN achieved this expansion with ritual (cheerleading sportscasting) and artwork (mesmerizing highlight reels) that can be brilliant or silly but keep followers devoted to the altar of games. Games are good. In a media world of political shysters, screaming suck-ups and corporate greed-heads, ESPN is a temple of true believers in the sanctity of athletic competition. From its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., which is famously nowhere, SportsWorld is worshipped as a patch of masculine meritocracy to be analyzed to the last angel on a decimal point. If there is life outside the white lines it is rarely visible at ESPN. This is its strength or its weakness, depending on whether you want your church to be a sanctuary from the real world or a meaningful way to engage it.
Now ESPN has an Old Testament, a 763-page oral history by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales called Those Guys Have All the Fun. As it turns out, the guys (and particularly the girls) have had less fun than one might imagine. Since ESPN first came on air in 1979, its staff—young, isolated, working long hours in close quarters—has been riven by backstabbing and sexual harassment. But the book's subtitle, "Inside the World of ESPN," is accurate. If you crave all the biblical begats, this is the text, even if you lose your way among the interchangeably nasty and/or alcoholic founding executives and engineers, and the ambitious and egomaniacal anchors and producers. Like ESPN's signature show, SportsCenter, the book is a numbing series of dunks, dings, bombs, and body checks. But many of the highlights are choice.
My own favorite concerns one of ESPN's boldest failed ventures, the scripted drama series Playmakers, about the lives and loves of pro football players and their wives and lovers, which dealt with substance abuse, homosexuality, and the rigors of the game. It was a terrific show, smart, compelling, filled with ripped-from-the-headlines reality. A young executive named Mark Shapiro, now gone, pushed it as a way to broaden the network's appeal beyond "the hard x's and o's crowd." Women watched it. Playmakers was a hit.
It was canceled after one season because it made the NFL unhappy. It was bad for the brand.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recounts in the book how he called Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, ESPN's parent company, and said: "People want to watch sports when they can respect the athletes. This program leads them to have a view of the athletes that leads them to disrespect the athletes."
Miller and Shales are respected journalists—Shales won a Pulizer Prize as the Washington Post's TV critic and together they wrote a engrossing oral history of Saturday Night Live—so one can feel disappointed that they didn't have more to say between the often contradictory sound bites. They might have pointed to the Playmakers episode as an example of ESPN's troubled relationship with the sports it supposedly covers journalistically while paying them enormous sums to appear on its stage. The phrase "conflict of interest" seems flabby.
Nor do they pause to connect the fictional Playmakers with the real ones. For example, when Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was accused of sexual misconduct in a bar, why was the worldwide leader in sports just about the last major media outlet to cover the story? Did ESPN's lack of response reflect its own sad record of female employees being victimized by their frat-ish male colleagues? Or was the network once again obeying Tagliabue's demand that it "respect the athletes"?