According to ESPN: The Uncensored History (Taylor Publishing Co., $24.95), which is being published on April 5, Bristol University is—or at least used to be—one helluva party school. "It was not unusual," writes author Michael Freeman, "for anchor Gary Miller, after more than a few beers, to shave his rear end at a party to loosen everyone up."
Well, who among us hasn't.
"There was a ticker machine outside [the] SportsCenter [studio] that had so many razor blade nicks in it from people using razor blades to cut up their cocaine," Freeman quotes one former employee as saying, "they had to replace the top of the machine."
That never made the "This is SportsCenter" ads.
"I know you want to screw me," Freeman has anchor Mike Tirico telling a female coworker at a party in 1992, "so let's leave."
Anecdotes such as these and others—Tirico, who in 1992 served a three-month suspension from his job for sexual harassment, is the marquee name in a litany of sexual offenses—are a big source of embarrassment for ESPN, and understandably so. In 20 years the network has risen from a plot of dirt in central Connecticut to become the center of the TV sports universe. Yet Freeman's book, while covering all the bases, some more perfunctorily than others, devotes a disproportionate amount of ink to the thesis that ESPN has been an inhospitable workplace, especially for women. "There's 17 pages on Mike Tirico," complains one ESPN employee, "and probably half as many on Chris Berman."
In 1997 Freeman, the NFL beat writer for The New York Times, faxed a letter to ESPN stating his intention to write a history of the network and requesting access to its headquarters, employees and archives. He was flatly rebuffed. But, says ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca, "we never prohibited individuals from talking to Mike."
Freeman, however, says the interviewing process often was straight out of the film The Insider. "One female employee told me to meet her at a park. We got out of our cars, and all she said was, 'Start walking.' We walked into some woods until she was sure we were out of sight, and only then could I interview her."
Freeman says that John Walsh, ESPN's executive editor, told him, "The only way I'll talk to you [in an interview] is if I can control the book and I can take out anything negative about ESPN." The network's executives say they refused to assist Freeman because they heard that he was pursuing the sexual-harassment angle. "I don't think that we had a double standard [in not cooperating]," says Walsh, "because the scope and focus of the book was personnel issues, which could potentially hurt the reputation of my colleagues."