History, as Winston Churchill once said, is written by the victors. I disagree. That only holds true for the quick sweeps of human affairs, the kind in schoolbooks and multiple-choice tests. Interesting failures have more to teach us; the trajectories of empires and civilizations are all headed toward failure and collapse, and the human spirit will never outlast nature or God. Losers provide better instructions about an existence that inevitably ends with an end.
One thing is for certain, though. No history is written by those noble, valiant, foolish people who hold their tongues and burn their diaries. Supposed stoics are always steamrolled by rumor-mongers and bridge-burners, and what is the reward of silence? To be defined by others.
This is the story of my four years as a contributing college basketball writer at ESPN.com. I know that the only people who care about those days, which concluded in January, are the folks who read this site. The parade's passed by, my archives are buried in distant databases, and in an ADD sports world where yesterday only happens in highlights, it's as if I was never there at all. Which is fine by me.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
A few years ago, I was chatting with my sister Katie. She was recalling her memories of our times growing up together in the mid-1980's. We'd spend odd-numbered summer weeks at our father's house in New Hampshire. He'd take us to the convenience store, where we'd load up on penny candy, Yoo-Hoo and Cajun Spice Ruffles. Then Katie and I would sit around watching cable TV all day.
It was glorious. These were things Katie and I could ever do with our mother, who outlawed television and
junk food. Our dad, always the willing enabler, gave us a 4,000-calorie, 40-channel paradise. And to keep the peace when it came to the remote control, Katie and I had an agreement. I chose the channel in the morning, and she took over in the afternoon.
ESPN was still a puppy back then. It was still an independent and vibrant outlet, and at the time, hour-long highlight shows and off-kilter catch-phrases were still a fresh and novel approach to covering sports. I'd always watch SportsCenter
in the mornings, and then I'd watch the replay. When it came around again, I'd watch a third time. Once the cliff diving or the trick-shot pool came on at noon, my time was over; my sister would switch to Nickelodeon or the UHF channel that showed Heathcliff and the Smurfs.
habit drove Katie crazy. How could I watch the same thing over and over? If I knew the score and had seen all the highlights already, what was the point?
"I'm not watching, I'm studying,
" I explained. "Someday, I'm going to work for ESPN. Just you watch."
Katie reminded me of that dream when it came true in a roundabout way. From 1997 through 2004, I ran a software company that specialized in managing medical databases. In the spring of 2005, the college basketball editor at ESPN.com offered me a summer trial run, and a weekly column if I proved myself good enough. I hadn't written a real sports article in 14 years (not since college).
But this wasn't some out-of-the-blue offer; I'd just completed a shoestring 100 Games Project
on an internet blog website called The Mid-Majority. What I did was travel to 100 college basketball games and write about each one. People seemed to really like it, because they'd never seen anything like it before -- it was a fresh and novel approach to covering sports.
After the season, I received three generous offers to expose my work to wider audiences; I chose the one from the magical four letters that inspired me through my childhood. I wrote four 3,000-word conference previews, and the college sports division decided I was worth that shot.
In October of 2005, I received a simple assignment: "write stuff about the mid-majors." I was to file one weekly feature-length column, three ESPN Insider blogs and one hour-long chat each Friday. I received $400 per week for that. I was ecstatic; I was a real sportswriting professional!
I knew I could have done all that writing from home. I could have phoned in interviews with coaches, which was how other outlets treated the world outside the Top 25. What's more, I could have pocketed the money, because my wife and I really needed more than what my freelance computer work was bringing in.
But I wanted to get better
, and I wanted to get good enough to make a real living off my new career. I wanted to continue the mission I started the previous season with the 100GP, and properly represent the mid-major experience, as I knew it, to a national audience. I wanted to smell gymnasiums and arenas, and I wanted to shake the coaches' hands. I wanted to go, and I wanted to feel.
So I spent all of my sportswriting income on travel, and expanded my scope from the northeast corridor to the entire country. I went to Texas and California and the Missouri Valley. Even though I saved money by sleeping in the car, I didn't make any profit off my writing that first season. Or the second season. When I was raised to $500 a week before my third year, I thanked them for the kind reward. Then I spent it on more plane flights.
The rush and thrill of the game experience kept me going, and I loved the excitement of being able to relay all of this to a national audience. But I'd file my stories, and a succession of editors and a fully-staffed copy desk would usually beat all the joy out of them, or push me in directions I felt were wrong and misleading. It was frustrating, and my relationships with editors bordered on adverscabin. One time, I started the first five paragraphs of a blog post with the letters P, E, N, I and S. The story made it through.
When I finally grew up again, I just stopped reading the final published versions. It was just too heartbreaking. But even those wouldn't hang around for very long. Most of my stories were slotted at the bottom of the page, right above the link to the archives, and then they'd fall off the main college basketball page in less than a day. I was writing about Tennessee-Martin and Southeastern Louisiana and Monmouth, and there were always plenty of puff pieces about Duke and Kentucky and North Carolina squeezing me out. I came to accept it all as part of the job.
And it did become a job.
Every summer, I drove to Bristol to meet with the editors and higher-ups in the college sports division, and discuss the upcoming season with them. I was always asked the same question. "When you go to these places, are they grateful to see ESPN there?" I didn't need to read between the lines.
I never saw myself as ESPN.com's representative at mid-major games. I saw myself as the mid-majors' representative at ESPN.com, entrusted to do right by them. But my primary purpose was not to produce quality work or represent anybody, and it didn't matter if I traveled or not. My role was to provide coverage, to prove that ESPN.com cared about mid-majors more than the other big sites did. But that was a bargain I was more than willing to make, because I didn't care about the business end of things. I just wanted to go to basketball games, learn stuff, and be the best conduit I could be.
On December 19, 2008, I received an e-mail from one of the higher-ups in ESPN.com's college sports department.
I've been holding out hope that I wouldn't have to go down this path but I've just been given final word that I need to cut my budget, effective Jan. 1 ... so what that likely means is cutting back your contributions for the rest of the season - once we reach January ... if the end result for you is a 50 percent cutback, would you prefer to contribute every other week in the current fashion (feature, blog, chat) or to maintain a weekly presence at a reduced capacity?
It was a choice I couldn't make.
I have to be honest with you... I can't find any way for the travel to work if I'm making $1K/month from ESPN, I'm already stretched to the limit anyway. If I'm not traveling and going to games, I'm not much use to you as a feature writer. If this is where things are at, it might make more sense just to pull the plug on me altogether.
I am thankful that he didn't. He gave me a stay of execution by finding enough funds to keep me going at my then-current level of production. I thought that was very kind of him.
But the pressure weighed on me for weeks, and I didn't know how much longer I had. I knew I had a Southwest reward ticket that I could use anytime; I decided that if the final word came down and my contributions were cut, I'd return home and quit altogether. I'd have to quit ESPN.com, and close The Mid-Majority for good.
I always knew I couldn't sit at home and do this, because this was never about sifting through Google Reader and watching games on my couch. This was always about the road, from the beginning. I'd spent years openly mocking "mid-major writers" who scanned the Top 25 over breakfast on Tuesdays and called up any schools they'd never heard of. If I was going to cover small-college basketball at all, I had to do it well, because there is no point in doing it any other way.
On January 16, while I was sitting in a hotel room in Indianapolis filing a story about the second annual Samaritan's Feet barefoot coachng campaign
, I received that final word. There was nothing anybody could do anymore, best efforts had failed. I was cut in half, effective immediately.
I took a deep breath, and exhaled. I did it again. I thought about cashing in the voucher online and catching the hotel shuttle to the airport. I'd write my final TMM post on the plane, and then... what
I stood up and looked out the window, towards downtown Indianapolis. I fixated on the giant brick barn that looked so ridiculous against the skyline. Three hours later, I finished an essay called "The Sports Bubble"
and published it. I had no idea that those would be the most dangerous words I'd ever written.
All I was trying to put across was that if ESPN couldn't afford to have me finish the season, hopefully my Mid-Majority readers would help. I was simply asking for donations.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
The following Tuesday, Inauguration Day, I watched the world change from a frozen spot on the National Mall in Washington. Then I drove up to Philadelphia for a Drexel University basketball game. At halftime of that game, I received an urgent phone call.
It was the same person from ESPN's college sports division who'd been e-mailing me about all the budget cuts. I stood in a noisy anterior hallway of the Daskalakis Athletic Center, the phone pressed tightly against my ear. "You know that your blog post was read far beyond your Mid-Majority," came the voice on the other end of the line. "I was called out on the carpet this morning and asked to explain what you're doing with this."
I was fully aware that others knew about my site; thousands of others, in fact. Over the weekend, kind readers had donated over $4,000 so that I could finish the 2008-09 campaign. I felt the combined strength of those friends as this conversation continued.
"There were a lot of lies in that post," he continued. "You know full well that isn't true, about the budget cuts."
Instead of rehashing or reading back old e-mails, I replied as evenly and calmly as I could. "I'm out here on the road," I said. "You cut me back. I have to protect myself, my website, my career and my family, and I did what I had to do."
"You've put me in a very difficult position, Kyle," he continued. "So I have to inform you that you're no longer a contributing writer at ESPN.com, effective immediately."
"I fully realized that was a risk I was taking."
He congratulated me on my successful grassroots fund-raising, and said that I'd most likely be invited back in the summer when everything blew over. I told him that it was an awfully nice sentiment, but that I understood it was the kind of thing somebody says when they're trying to end a difficult phone call on positive terms. I thanked him and ESPN for taking a chance on a no-name writer who hadn't been published since college, and we hung up. Then I went back into the gym and watched the rest of the game.
I don't remember a thing about what happened in the second half, except that I logged into the wi-fi and posted this
. I don't even remember which CAA team Drexel was playing that night. In the press room, I told the other writers that I'd been fired at halftime, and I was so deadpan about it that they thought I was kidding. When I left the DAC, I wandered around Powelton Village for 20 minutes trying to remember where I had parked. I was stunned.
In the days that followed, while I maintained my silence, Bristol chose to burn bridges. My former colleagues were informed that I'd trashed the company and posted lies in my blog. One of the feature writers there told a mutual friend on the "outside" that she'd been told I had a vendetta against the Worldwide Leader. He sent the link to "The Sports Bubble" back to her. "Does this really
look like a vendetta to you?"
Several former colleagues on the Bristol campus wrote to me in the ensuing days. They used their private GMail and Yahoo addresses, because they'd get in trouble if they were found communicating with me with their official espn3.com accounts. There was an internal debate, so I was told, and many in the department went to bat for me. One executive, however, was dead-set about cutting ties; nothing anybody said would sway his opinion. I had to go.
I haven't heard back from any of those people since. And ESPN never did get back to me over the summer; I guess everything didn't blow over after all.
I am grateful for the opportunity that the Worldwide Leader gave me. I understand why and how it ended, because I understand corporate pride and oversensitivity to anything resembling criticism. My only regret about my four years there is that I never made the jump out of college basketball and into Olympic sports, which was my plan from the beginning. I worked the internal network for 12 months, and finally got myself a monthly series about champions and rivalries in lesser-known sports. I was supposed to go to West Point the day after I was fired to do a story about an odd rivalry in men's rifle shooting between Army and Alaska-Anchorage.
Actually, make that two regrets. My ESPN.com feature filing that week was supposed to be a Black History Month piece about the atmosphere at HBCU basketball games, in relation to the limited success of basketball in the MEAC and SWAC. The heart of the piece was a Howard University home game the night before Barack Obama's inauguration. That two-hour sustained explosion of joy in Burr Gymnasium that night was unbelievable, and unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life. I just wish that I'd been given the chance to take you there, so you could have felt it for yourself.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
During my brief time working with the Worldwide Leader in Sports, I met a lot of people who truly love what they do. Most of these folks toil in the technical and research divisions, and don't get any public credit for their work. Many attended the mid-major colleges in the Bristol area -- schools like Fairfield, Central Connecticut State and Quinnipiac.
I ran across people who could give me an interconference BracketBusters record if I asked for it, but who would attach eight other related facts they found interesting ("Hey, isn't this neat?"), just because. I met people who carry that same real love for sports I could feel coming out of the television set in 1984, when I was a kid watching SportsCenter
I remember watching the ESPN operation at the 2006 Final Four up close. Pushed out to the periphery by the rights-holders, many blocks away from the actual arena, a team of 30 engineers and technicians worked around the clock to make sure that the off-site studio spots went without a hitch. They were in perpetual disbelief that they were drawing salaries to be involved in bringing the sports world home to viewers. On Tuesday morning, they packed everything up in a matter of hours; it was the very picture of efficiency. Half were on to Boston for the women's championship, and others were ticketed to some early-season MLB game.
In Indianapolis that weekend, I also met some of the on-screen talent. I introduced myself to Dick Vitale in an elevator, and I mentioned something about the picture of him in the lobby at Calihan Hall at the University of Detroit -- he's there with the glasses and the crazy 1970's suit. I don't remember exactly what he said to me (but he did say "baby").
A month later, I bought a frozen pizza at the store. There was a contest on the back; you could win a trip to the Final Four and meet Dickie V. The chances of winning were one in 2,000,000. That reminded me again about how lucky I was to be living my ESPN dream, and the chances of it coming true were indeed somewhere around 1 in 2 million.
But in my four years, I could sense up close what is often painfully obvious through a TV set. Most of the announcers, analysts and assorted talent are doing a job, punching a clock. They've replaced a hot, mad love for the game with cold cynicism. Some have replaced journalistic hustle with the speed-dial. Others have an open contempt for the audiences that give them relevance, and have discovered that they can use the public like big panels of pushable buttons. They say controversial things, and there's always a huge response. Hubris naturally attracts ridicule, and there's no need for me to add anything there.
There are exceptions, of course, one very notable. Two months into the 100 Games Project, Pat Forde used The Form™. It was January 2005, long before ESPN took me on, back when this site attracted 300 visitors a day (mostly search index robots). "I'm impressed by your passion for the game -- especially the underexposed parts of the game," he wrote. "Very cool. Keep up the good work and I'll continue to visit." It's a message that's printed on yellowing paper, thumb-tacked on a tote board above my desk at home.
Mr. Forde, who eventually became a dear friend of Bally
, is the real genuine article if ever there was one. His stories on ESPN.com are always sharp and bright, full of creativity and inspiration and passion. Pat Forde loves sports
. In those rare times when I've been able to spend a game next to him on press row, he's always fidgety and excited before a game starts, his knee bouncing all over the place. He can't wait for the game to begin. When the ball goes up for the opening tip, he looks like he's ready to sprint out there on the court and drop a UCLA cut on somebody.
And could I restrain him if he did?
Whenever I run into him, he'll always say something like, "Have you been following this Louisville team? It's crazy!"
"Pat," I'll reply. "You know I don't give a fuck about Louisville."
And we'll both laugh
.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
A selective reading of this, one as selective as executive interpretation of "The Sports Bubble," might lead some to believe that my four-year stint as a traveling national sportswriter has left me jaded. But it was a true honor to represent those four interlocked letters, the ones that once stood for four actual words. Things are different now, and I was reminded of that every time I received a check in the mail with Mickey Mouse in the top left corner.
The original spirit of ESPN is still there, but it's hidden underneath a thick and impenetrable layer of corporate concrete. It's still the same company -- the same weird, lovable, vulnerable entity that dates back to the days when Tom Mees was the man.
But it turns out that the people who really let me down in all of this don't even work for ESPN at all.
I'm really disappointed in the coaches who won't return my phone calls now. Even though I write a column for a 25-year-old magazine
that's nearly as old as the Four-Letter, there are sports information directors simply lose or refuse my credential requests. Folks who once told me my "stuff" was "great" don't have the time of day for me anymore. I understand that at ESPN, I was an interchangeable bullhorn to get a message out. But c'mon... don't lie to me and tell me it was ever about the quality of my work. For some, the context was always more important than the content, and to those people, I'm more than happy to be forgotten.
I didn't expect much from bloggers, message-board posters and anonymous online commenters, and many delivered accordingly. I know I didn't trash the Leader on the way out for a burst of disposable attention, as some were pressuring me to do. And it was interesting to see the Venn overlap between those who popped jokes about my firing and those in the anti-ESPN crowd. Some felt that the end of my Big Media run signified a huge fail on my part. Those people are buying into a notion that ESPN is some sort of ultimate arbiter of quality. Now that's mind control.
To those who stuck with The Mid-Majority during those difficult and transitional times, those who were on board with us before and continue with us now, I will always remember your interest and concern. I'll never forget the kindness you bestow upon these efforts. This adventure will end, perhaps even soon. But no matter what, I will be always proud to call you friends. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to make sure that your continued support is warranted and rewarded.
I will never work for a company like ESPN again. I'll never put myself in another situation where I have to worry about what I say. I don't want to place my destiny in the hands of secret figures I don't know the names of. I never again want to be a part of a sports industry that produces sports-related things and sports-stuff, run by shadowy sports pimps. And why would I ever want to?
Why would you ever want to?
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