Inside James Andrew Miller's black messenger bag was potential sports-world dynamite: the 770-page oral history of ESPN that he has written with Tom Shales.
Miller is on orders from his publisher, Little, Brown, not to show the book or quote from it. He was not handcuffed to the bag, but he was holding it quite snugly to his side.
''This is my only copy," Miller said, sitting in a coffee-shop booth last week in Manhattan. "I couldn't get another one to give to my mother for Mother's Day."
No advance copies were sent out, so those eligible to read "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" before its May 24 release — among them magazine editors vying to buy an excerpt — had to sign confidentiality agreements and read it in Little, Brown's office. GQ will publish an excerpt about Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick starting Monday on its website.
Maximum security has enabled Little, Brown to delay questions about the book's contents, like: Will it savage ESPN, its executives and its talent, causing recriminations and resignations? And will it have enough sleaze straight out of Bristol, Conn., to appeal to the dirt-loving online readers of the website Deadspin — and enough original reporting to present a tough, balanced, colorful examination of ESPN's route to becoming a sports and cultural leviathan?
''We could have filled every page with salacious details — every page," Miller said. "But that doesn't explain how ESPN got to be as big as it is. If there were 770 pages of sex, that would tell the sexual history of ESPN, and that might be a bigger best-seller."
There has been sexual misbehavior at ESPN, notably by Steve Phillips, Sean Salisbury and some executives. Tony Kornheiser was suspended for two weeks for mocking Hannah Storm's attire, which Miller considers a critical moment in ESPN's strategy to control its image by managing how its employees behave toward one another.
Nearly 4,000 people work for ESPN in Bristol. ESPN employees act badly just as people at large and small companies do. ESPN certainly waited too long to hold some people accountable for uncivil conduct at a company that Miller said had been run by a succession of six middle-age white men. We know what we know — and some of us care about what we know — because it is the mighty ESPN, which Miller said that his research proved was worth more than the NFL.
Miller is as enamored of the serious reporting as he is about the gossip, all of it gleaned from 560 interviews. He chuckles three times before relating an incident about a FedEx driver "who acted as the pimp to secretaries who were looking to pay for their coke habit," but also reveals how an ESPN executive tried to pull the WNBA off the air in a screaming argument with NBA Commissioner David Stern.
He is most proud, it seems, of the four months he reported on the 1998 deal that gave ESPN a full season of "Sunday Night Football" rights and the financial rationale to push its monthly subscriber fees to enormously high levels.
Miller said that Michael Eisner, the former head of the Walt Disney Co., ESPN's parent, told him that the 1998 NFL deal "was the most important thing in broadcasting since Bill Paley stole all of NBC's stars." Paley, who built CBS into the Tiffany Network, lured Jack Benny, Red Skelton and "Amos 'n' Andy," among others, from NBC in the 1940s.
If "Those Guys" aspires to be the definitive history of ESPN, Miller and Shales had to take its existence seriously but not soberly. Sports are entertaining, newsy and fun. But sports are big business, and ESPN dominates and even overwhelms the industry. I want the big yarn with the proper dosage of scandal (and the secret of Chris Berman's staying power).
Whatever its many excesses, ESPN is an amazing success story of empire building. Its ever-expanding matrix of television, radio, digital, film and print platforms goes beyond what any other media company has created.
I want the full story — not only tantalizing tales of who hates whom — which has not yet been told in the few books about ESPN. The company would also like that story told and is relying on Miller's representations that the book will be responsible.
ESPN barred him from talking to people in Bristol during the first year of his research, then it relented. Miller said he felt they hoped he would give up. John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content, said, "Given his doggedness, the decision was made to let him come on campus for convenience's sake to talk to people, but we didn't tell anybody not to talk to him."
ESPN has not tried to quash the book, and Miller said some interviews on ESPN outlets had already been scheduled. Still, Miller said that some executives vowed that they would wrest an advance copy out of the 175,000 in the first printing.
''Nobody has said that to me," Skipper said. "As of today, nobody has seen it."
Deadspin, which offered a $10,000 bounty to get an early copy last week ("We did that semi-sarcastically," said A.J. Daulerio, the site's editor-in-chief), published a few smarmy paragraphs that had been cut from the book. Nicole Dewey, a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, said the desire of Deadspin and other outlets to read the book in advance "confirms for us that this is a story in demand."
Inevitably, the most straightforward history of ESPN will cause some queasiness in Bristol. Oral history, as Miller and Shales know from "Live From New York," their 2002 book about "Saturday Night Live," is about personalities, the stories they tell and the quotations chosen. People often say more than they plan to, and Miller said some anxious ESPN interviewees asked that some of their remarks be moved off the record. In some cases, he agreed, sacrificing easy headlines. In others, he refused.
''I can't presume the reactions to the book," Miller said. "Some people will feel they escaped the bullet. Some will feel it's unbelievably tough."
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