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ESPN Expos Reveals Highlights, Lowlights

5/07/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

For more than two decades, ESPN has brought highlights and low moments from the world of sports to millions of viewers, providing coverage from every angle-from gushing superlatives to the hushed tones of scandal, from plays of the day to season-ending fumbles, from heroes to goats.

In his entertaining ESPN: The Uncensored History, Mike Freeman, the National Football League reporter for The New York Times, puts the network under the same kind of spotlight that made it and TV sports synonymous.

It doesn't take too many pages to see why the glare of that spotlight might make some people connected with ESPN-past and present-more than a little unhappy.

Freeman is unsparing in his look at the network's flaws, including bouts of sexual harassment and discrimination, drug use and gambling.

He attributes some of the problems to the warp speed of the network's growth-from 70 employees overall in 1979 to 70 just in Argentina today-and to its disproportionately young-male work force, particularly in the first decade or so.

The author also chides the network for trying to hamper his reporting and for being secretive about matters its own journalists routinely cover when they affect professional-sports teams, collegiate athletic departments, coaches or athletes. For its part, ESPN said it is prevented by law from discussing personnel matters.

He's also effusive when it comes to praising its successes and many of the people who have graced both sides of the camera during ESPN's first 20 years. But the scandals or hints of wrongdoing will probably stand out to most readers.

Often using pseudonyms for the women involved, Freeman writes:

  • That female employees, particularly in the production department, worked in an often-hostile environment for a management that was slow to respond to complaints;

  • That dozens of men were accused of sexually harassing female employees and were treated differently according to their value to the network;

  • That a three-month leave in 1992 by high-profile anchor Mike Tirico was actually a suspension levied after six women registered on-the-record complaints. Those allegations ranged from inappropriate touching and comments to a bizarre car chase that occurred after a woman refused advances that included a four-letter word you can't say on basic cable;

  • That a male production employee who lied about a single derogatory e-mail exchange was fired just before Tirico went on "leave"; and

  • That a senior manager was never seriously disciplined after a series of complaints, and he was eventually allowed to resign after a different group of women filed complaints. He told Freeman a confidentiality clause in his severance agreement prevents him from discussing the matter.

After covering the sexual-harassment charges over dozens of pages scattered throughout the book, Freeman revisits the matter late in the text. In a scant paragraph, he writes that complaints have dropped sharply in recent years.

"After years of stupendous blunders by management and painful sacrifices by women, ESPN has finally started to tame its 800-pound gorilla," Freeman said.

ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca-who has been with the network for most of its existence-covered the sexual-harassment allegations in a statement: "We had some issues 10 years ago, and we addressed them whenever they were brought forward. We learned from the experience, and it's a much better place today."

LaPlaca added, "Contrary to the book's portrayal, ESPN cares very much about its people, and it has over many years taken many proactive steps to enhance the workplace environment."

In another section, Freeman quotes early ESPN employee Stephen Bogart-son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall-about cocaine use by himself and others in the early 1980s: "There was a lot of blow going around the newsroom. There was a ticker machine outside SportsCenter that had so many razor-blade nicks in it from people using razor blades to cut up their cocaine that they had to replace the top of the machine."

He also writes of a time when gambling was so pervasive that the Connecticut State Police made a courtesy call to warn management.

But the book also has its flaws, reading at times like ESPN: The Unedited Story. It's a shame, because Freeman has a fascinating and often illuminating story to tell as he traces ESPN's evolution from idea to a crown jewel of The Walt Disney Co. empire.

Some people might glide by an early, glaring mistake: a statement on page 6 that in 1995, "When Disney bought Capital Cities, the star-studded media chain, it was ESPN, not the Watergate-breaking Washington Post, that attracted Disney chairman Michael Eisner. He called ESPN the 'crown jewel' of the purchase." CapCities/ ABC Inc. never owned The Washington Post Co.

It's a testimony to Freeman's reputation-and his obviously intensive four-year reporting effort-that the mistake seemed more like something that was misread, or as if Freeman had somehow forgotten that the Post, where he was once a reporter, was never part of the CapCities empire. The answer was no to both, although the two shared a major investor in Warren Buffet.

Later in the book, Freeman praises Stuart Evey, the Getty Oil executive responsible for buying an 85 percent interest in ESPN, for a "bold, daring move."

Evey switched ESPN from a free, ad-supported service to one that charged operators 10 cents per subscriber in January 1983, creating a new revenue stream for the network and "changing the landscape of cable forever."

Technically, however, ESPN was not free to operators. The network started life with a 4-cent-per-subscriber fee, although under various affiliate agreements, it was rarely, if ever, collected.

Freeman also skips over a truly innovative moment in ESPN-dom-the one-year program preceding the 1983 change that actually offered some operators 10 cents per subscriber.

The eminently quotable and always controversial Keith Olbermann-now at his second post-ESPN job with competitor Fox Sports Net-garners a larger chunk of space than run-of-the-show veterans like Chris Berman. Freeman cannot resist quoting Olbermann, using the acerbic former SportsCenter anchor's memos to open and close the book.

It's not that Olbermann isn't relevant or that his comments don't add to the book. And it's not like he didn't contribute to the network's success. But his role in the book somehow seems disproportionate to his place in ESPN history, censored or uncensored.

Just as knowing about ESPN's flaws tarnishes the glow of its success, some of Freeman's errors detract from the book. They don't make his work less worth reading, but they alter the experience.

While sex and drugs may get the most attention, Freeman's best writing is in the telling of the history of ESPN, in which founder Bill Rasmussen and his son, Scott, gambled everything they had on the dream of a Connecticut-based all-sports station, then had to cede control to Getty to make the dream a bigger reality.

Cable veterans will enjoy his tales of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Rasmussens and Evey; the pivotal hiring of NBC Sports veteran Chet Simmons, who proceeded to raid the "Peacock Network"; and the politics of creating a cable service.

And those who grew up with ESPN will get a glimpse of what it took to build the cable giant from the ground floor.

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