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The book on everything ESPN, and an ombudsman finally speaks

Jim Miller has become the nation's foremost ESPNologist. Over the past two years the writer has interviewed 472 subjects for his upcoming book, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. He and co-writer Tom Shales, the longtime Washington Post television columnist, have set a goal to chronicle ESPN from its scrappy beginnings to the infamous LeBronapalooza it hosted earlier this month.

The two previously collaborated on Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,which was a New York Times best-seller in 2002. The ESPN book is scheduled to come out in early 2011 and, given the network's place in popular culture, the interest is going to be high, especially within the sports media.

"I love sports and I love television so I wanted to tackle this," said Miller. Asked about the level of cooperation he has received from current and former ESPN staffers, Miller said, "There are three different types of people we've interviewed. The first type is the person who says, 'I love or loved being at ESPN. It was the greatest experience of my life. What can I tell you?' The second person says, 'It's a great place but it certainly has its challenges and problems and I'll be happy to share both.' Then there's the third person who is resentful and angry and was maybe even scorned. I think there are many people there looking forward to the book, and I think there are many people wondering, Can we trust these guys, what are they up to, and are they out to get us?"Miller has interviewed every president in ESPN's history, from the late Chet Simmons (the president when the company launched in 1979) to George Bodenheimer (the current president). He has interviewed executives, on-air talent and behind-the-scenes people. And he has interviewed major players in the television industry outside of ESPN. Has he interviewed people who left the network on bad terms? "Does the phrase 'early and often' ring a bell?" said Miller. The author, understandably, opted not to discuss the specifics of his interviews.

Shales and Miller first met with ESPN executives nearly two years ago; the network told them they would not participate in the project. "We asked for their cooperation and they were very kind with their response, but they said we don't want to participate," Miller said. In fact, Miller said he was initially not allowed on ESPN's Bristol campus for onsite research and interviews despite repeated requests for access.That nine-month "ban" from the beginning of the project through last spring has since been lifted (he has made a dozen trips to Bristol during the course of research, which has included watching shows from the set and various interviews).

Why did ESPN decide not to formally cooperate with the authors? "Two primary reasons," said Chris LaPlaca, the senior vice president of corporate communications for ESPN. "First, time. Officially devoting company resources to a book of this proportion was a concern. Secondly, our general policy is not to officially 'endorse' any publication. That's why we ultimately left it a personal decision."

LaPlaca added that ESPN initially opted not to give on-campus access to Miller because "we just thought it would be less of a distraction for our people if interviews were done off campus."Why did that decision change? "That became more of a practical decision," said LaPlaca. "Many who decided to be interviewed felt it would be actually easier logistically if they could do it on campus. So, again, given the flexibility and trust we place in our people, that's how it evolved."

Miller had only complimentary things to say about his dealings with the network's communication department. The author said he is 95 percent done with interviews of ESPN employees, but there will be more fact-checking conversations. His total interviews (including multiple interviews with the same subject) has passed 500. "We have left the decision on whether or not to be interviewed up to individuals," LaPlaca said. "In each case, it was a personal decision with no pressure either way from the company."

The groundwork for the book (you can follow the book on Twitter here) began two years ago. Miller, who served as special assistant to Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and previously penned a book on another American institution (Running In Place: Inside The Senate), wrote a 20-page proposal that his agent pitched to several publishing houses. The authors ultimately opted for Little, Brown and Company because they loved how the publisher treated their previous book and their relationship with Geoff Shandler, editor in chief at Little, Brown & Company.

"ESPN is obviously a huge success story and we are trying to trace the pedigree of that success," Miller said. "It's not enough just to say look how big they are. It's trying to understand how they got to this position and what were the important moments along the way that enabled them to be in this position. There are real tipping points. It didn't happen by accident. There are a couple of times if something had not happened or somebody else had done something at a certain time, it would not be what it is right now. "

***Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has positioned himself as the NFL's most prominent fantasy football player. At a Sirius XM Radio press outing Wednesday -- where else but Sirius could one find a Howard Sternwhackpacker (in this case, High Pitch Eric) mixing easily with celebrity guests such as Jeremy Roenick -- Jones-Drew spoke about the fantasy football show he will host Friday nights during the NFL season. It's part of a new 24/7 all-fantasy-sports channel (SIRIUS XM Fantasy Sports Radio, airing on XM channel 147 and SIRIUS channel 211 for subscribers with the "Best of XM" programming package) on the satellite radio service. Asked why he plays Fantasy football, Jones-Drew said, "Because I get to be the owner. I get to run stuff for once. I can't run my house. I can't run the team in Jacksonville. But I get to run my own team."

Jones-Drew said he will give as much fantasy information as possible but won't reveal his own team's injuries. Nor will he start any player who is playing against the Jaguars that week.

As to why a fantasy sports radio channel might be successful, Scott Greenstein, SIRIUS XM's President and Chief Content Officer, said the content is currently being underserved in the audio landscape. "The success of fantasy sports programs we have broadcast in the past and analyzing the growth of fantasy sports overall led us to believe that there is great demand for a 24/7 dedicated channel that covers all the major sports in a comprehensive fashion," Greenstein said.

***The column thundered down from the mountaintop 13 days later and you could not help but notice a certain word that filtered into the commentary on ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer's critique of "The Decision." • ESPN OMBUD FINALLY WEIGHS IN ON LEBRON BROUHAHA, teased Jim Romenesko on his popular media website.• "It took Ohlmeyer a couple weeks to render his verdict, but he has finally handed it down -- all 4,750 words of it," said DailyFinance.com's Jeff Bercovici. • Wrote Lynn Zinser of the New York Times: "ESPN's ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer has finally weighed in on the topic after the network has absorbed two weeks of public opinion pounding His take? It was a travesty. But we already knew that."Finally. Clearly, Ohlmeyer was painfully late with this piece given "The Decision" was a journalistic disaster. One hopes the public outcry over the distance between the show and the publication of the ombudsman's column serves as a wake-up call for Ohlmeyer to be more nimble at weighing in when events call for it.

As for the piece itself, it was Ohlmeyer's most thoughtful and powerful yet, and the existence of it (even late) helps save the credibility of the position. The major omission was not hearing from Bodenheimer and ESPN Executive Vice President/Content John Skipper, the latter and well-regarded executive who played a major role in how this went down, according to this fantastic Advertising Age piece. It's understandable if Ohlmeyer wanted to stay away from quoting ESPN executive editor John Walsh -- the executive who recruits and chooses the ESPN ombudsman. But because so much of Ohlmeyer's thesis focused on the dichotomy of interests between the business and studio production side and the newsgathering unit, allowing readers to hear from those at the top of ESPN's executive chain seemed a necessity in this instance. That said, and I read the piece five times to let it sink in, Ohlmeyer hit on the heart of the matter in these two paragraphs.

"No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN "paid" for exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive. Team LeBron sold those advertising units. The fact that it was in turn distributed to charity was immaterial, journalistically. James used ESPN's commercial spots in an effort to enhance his image as a responsible, caring charitable guy -- there's direct value to James in doing so, and he did it courtesy of the network, and with the sponsor's money.

As to transparency, ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most. Although there was no attempt to hide the Gray involvement or the inventory arrangement leading up to the broadcast, the viewers were not explicitly told at the most appropriate moments that conflicts existed. Before turning from the Bristol set to Gray, ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James' team to do the interview. "

These are important and powerful words and they carry significance because of Ohlmeyer's position. The ombudsman also called out the network to establish formal journalistic guidelines, which might be an impossible exercise at a place with as many tentacles as ESPN, but good of him to illuminate it. Since it's always fun to offer suggestions for ESPN, especially because the odds of them taking me up on them are about the same as a Kardashian winning the Oscar, I'll submit this: In a real-time world of Twitter, Facebook and daily SportsNation polls, perhaps it's worth establishing a space for Ohlmeyer to answer some mailbag questions weekly as the PBS ombudsman does here.

Even a brief comment on "The Decision" within the first 48 hours, with a note saying more would be coming in the days ahead, would have aided Ohlmeyer greatly. Instead, his delayed response became part of the story. Much like "The Decision," here's hoping that doesn't happen again.

***

In the annals of spectacular sports media falls, Steve Phillips would be on any Top 20 list. He was a rising star at ESPN -- his second act following a public firing as Mets GM -- before an affair with a younger co-worker landed him on the front of the New York tabloids as well as the unemployment line. While Phillips was a good analyst on Baseball Tonight, I always thought he was better suited for radio, which gave him the freedom of time to expand his thoughts. Last October he was fired by ESPN, but since has enjoyed a third public act working for AOL Sports. WFAN Radio in New York and as a co-host (along with Jeff Rickard, who has long been praised in this space) for the nightly evening show on Sirius XM's new sports fantasy channel. He is also the voice on an MLB2K video game.

During Sirius's press outing on Wednesday, SI.com spoke with Phillips, 47, about his life since his public fall. Newsday's Neil Best also has a worthwhile piece on Phillips here.

SI.com: Given your history, there is obviously a public relations aspect for any entity hiring you. Why did Sirius, WFAN and AOL take another shot on you?

Phillips: It's probably better for them to answer that but I would think I have a different perspective as a former general manager than mangers and former players. I think WFAN has had experience with people with addictions [former morning anchor Don Imus battled with alcohol and drug addiction] and they have had some positive experience with people in recovery. The gratitude I have for Sirius, WFAN and AOL , I could not be more grateful. I understand that there is some part where people perceive they are taking a chance on me.

SI.com: You have been very forthright to the public about your sex addiction. Why so public?

Phillips: There wasn't really anything to hide. I think it was pretty clear that I had issues and that I went to go get treatment for it. I thought it made sense to be honest about it and not just say, "Yeah, I went and got help but not tell you what I got help for." There is a part of it for me that has been liberating to talk about it. Part of it can also be paralyzing, too, because part of my issues have been worrying about what other people thought of me. I just felt it was right to be honest about it and say it. I also think there is a part of it for the recovery of sex addition, like alcoholism or drug addiction, and part of that is service. There is part of me that hoped someone would hear my story and say, "I didn't know what my issue was but I can get help for it."

SI.com: Do you have a longterm goal to get back on a national television platform, and is that realistic?

Phillips: I have surrendered the outcome of all of that. Living a life of recovery, it is one day at a time for my health and it really is that way for my career. I have been blessed to have had opportunities come up already...To have expectations about what is supposed to happen next, if I start to worry about that, it's not a healthy place for me to go.

SI.com: What are your current feelings toward ESPN?

Phillips: I have no ill-will toward ESPN. They gave me a great opportunity and I understand what they did and why they did it. I went to the All-Star Game with AOL and I saw a lot of them [his former colleagues] and said hello. I was worried how people would react -- fans, listeners and people in baseball -- but I've really been met with compassion and support.

SI.com: Do you think the public is forgiving for someone in your position?

Phillips: I certainly have that sense. One of the things in my own recovery that I found was a reading that said "We all walk with profound limps. Some of us are better at hiding our limp than others." Mine is obvious. I'm as gimpy as anyone out there. Some might look at me and say they feel sorry for me. Some might say what a good story for redemption. Some might say what an idiot. I'm still the same person with three different people forming opinions about me. People understand that we are all flawed. I certainly am, and mine is out there. I'm willing to admit that, and I'm going to work hard to try to take care of myself so I don't do anything to hurt anybody again.

***

Last week the noted sportswriter Dave Kindred wrote a column that criticized the Associated Press Sports Editors for bestowing Mitch Albom with the Red Smith Award, which honors lifetime achievement in sports journalism. Kindred is a voter for the award, which Albom had previously been up for nomination. His piece for the National Sports Journalism Center website (he writes about sports writing for the site) received a flurry of attention in sports media circles and prompted other sports writers, such as the always-opportunistic Jason Whitlock, to unload on Albom.

"I felt compelled to say something," Kindred said. "I wanted to narrow the argument to what I thought the argument was. I hold journalists and myself to a high standard. I think we can't make up stuff. I think we can't assume stuff. I don't think we can print stuff that we don't know has happened. So I held that strike against Mitch. His body of work certainly has been outstanding, but for me on this one issue, I have always voted for other people. When I saw Mitch won, I thought I should say why I had not voted for him."

(For a recap of the journalistic transgression by Albom referenced by Kindred, click here).

Kindred said he has not heard from Albom nor does he expect he will. (Kindred will also be busy over the next couple of weeks promoting his new book, Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post. A Great Newspaper Fights For Its Life). "Probably, for a general-interest newspaper or magazine, I wouldn't have written it," Kindred said. "Too intramural. But it's a sports journalism site, my charge is sportswriting, and to ignore Albom's award would be akin to Peter King ignoring an NFL Hall of Fame controversy. So I wrote."

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