I was in the Durham Bulls press box the first time I got laid off.
It was the top of the sixth inning when announcements from several of my coworkers began popping up on Twitter: CBS was discontinuing its RapidReports coverage of college football and basketball. Everyone was being let go.
I’d been the Duke basketball reporter, and I was holding out hope that the rumors weren’t true … maybe there were just cutbacks, and some of us would be saved.
The NC State reporter tweeted that he was out. So did the Carolina reporter.
As the Bulls manager headed to the mound to make a pitching change, my phone rang. It was a number from West Palm Beach, Florida—site of the home office for the CBSSports department in charge of RapidReports.
The editor who hired me made the call personally, which I appreciated. He broke the news to me. He also let me know that they were hoping to restructure and hire back some of the reporters. I told him I’d be interested and hung up.
It was fitting that I got the call in the Bulls press box. Midway through the previous season, I’d had my new reporter orientation conference call during an epic rain delay in the same spot. As I wondered if I had to worry about lightning strikes while on a cell phone, I got the details on my exciting new job.
Now, a little over a year later, it was over. The final three and a half innings of the game were a blur of anxiety as I tried to hold off a panic attack. I’d moved to North Carolina to take the twin opportunities to cover Duke and work for CBSSports. Now thoughts swirled, none of them good—How would I manage to keep my Duke credential for the next season? How would I pay my mortgage?
A few months later, CBS brought me back as one of two reporters covering the entire ACC.
I was in the Cameron Indoor Stadium media room the second time I got laid off.
I’d just gotten back from a three bowls in three days road trip that took me from Charlotte to Atlanta to Miami and back. Still in desperate need of sleep, I went to Cameron for a press conference with former Duke quarterback Thad Lewis, who was meeting with the Durham media after a successful stint as Browns starting quarterback.
There was no warning on Twitter this time. My phone rang before Lewis arrived at the podium. I saw it was a West Palm number and answered, assuming it was related to the road trip I’d just completed.
My boss wasn’t on the line. I never found out why he didn’t make the second call—whether he refused, couldn’t bring himself to do it or what. Instead, it was some executive I didn’t recognize. He broke the news—the program was being discontinued immediately, with three months to go in the basketball season and conference play just beginning.
I closed up my computer and quickly packed my things, trying to hit the door before tears began to flow. Lewis entered the room just as I stepped out and started running for my car.
I remember a few days later, emailing NC State’s basketball S.I.D. at the time, to inform him of the news. State had credentialed me for the season through CBSSports.com, so I felt like I had to let him know I wouldn’t be representing them, although I’d still like to continue covering the games, while I searched for my next outlet.
“Sorry to hear that,” came the response. “Please turn in your credential and the remaining parking passes to the next press conference.”
At the next press conference, a day later, I walked in, head up, and handed over my pass, then I ran for the car again.
I remember the next Duke home game, as well. It was my first trip back to the media room since I’d received the phone call. I made it through the night, barely, then skipped the post-game interviews and went to my car to have a full-blown panic attack. Some of my Duke fan Twitter followers had offered to buy me a beer after the game. I had to write to them and cancel. “I just can’t do it,” I said.
There have been other times—the skiing magazine I edited that went out of business on the first day of the Winter Olympics, the radio prep service that eliminated my position, the online men’s magazine that just wasn’t making enough money—my boss broke the news to me that time with, “Dude. You were great. But we’re done.”
I remember where I was each time. Each wound has scarred over, but make no mistake—nothing is healed. It still hurts just as much, and just thinking about each time brings back the tightness in my chest as the questions swirl in my head—How will I get access? What will I do next? How will I make do?
Announcements like the one at ESPN earlier this week bring back all the memories in a flood. I read Jayson Stark’s column every Sunday in Philadelphia, before he hit the big leagues with Worldwide Leader. One of the highlights of my first NCAA Tournament with CBS was getting to sit in the network’s scorer’s table seats…next to Andy Katz! My assigned seat in Carolina’s media room all season was next to C.L. Brown, and we spent the day after this year’s Final Four hanging out together in a hotel lobby, with all our luggage, waiting for our Tuesday night flights. If they’re not safe, who is? If it can happen to them, it can happen to any of us … and for most of us, that previous phrase would end with the word “again.”
As people have discussed the ESPN layoffs online over the last two days, I’ve seen several people declare, “This is a tough business.” I disagree. Construction is a tough business. So is law enforcement, the military and mining.
This is a great business. That’s what makes the layoffs so tough. Behind all the worry and questions about the future, there was also an underlying feeling of loss—you don’t get to do this anymore. For awhile, I got to cover the ACC for CBSSports. I got to sit at the scorer’s table and apply for Orange Bowl credentials without reading the criteria for approval. And then, all of a sudden, I didn’t anymore.
A friend of mine recently walked away from his job covering the ACC for an area paper to take a non-sports job in communications. His last day was a Wednesday in March—the day before the NCAA Tournament began.
That decision was—and still is—mind-boggling to me. Sure, the travel is tough, the hours are long, the future is uncertain, and there’s a laundry list of other frustrations. But when Kentucky and Carolina were getting ready to play for a trip to the Final Four, and noise in the arena in Memphis was palpable, the lights were dimmed for player introductions. Mark Armstrong leaned over from his seat next to me and said, “This is why we do this. Right here.”
That’s one of the reasons. Then there’s the challenge of finding the compelling angle that no one else has—the possibility of walking into a locker room with the nation’s best journalists and being the only one to walk out with the story.
There’s that moment back in the media room, after all the interviews are done and the stadium lights are turned off, when you can look around at the other writers, wearing headphones and transcribing their quotes, and realizing that now it’s our game time. We all saw the same thing on the field or court. We all talked to the same people. Now we all tell our stories and see who does it best.
It’s a drug, a passion, and it means that I’m going to get laid off again, at some point in the near future. That has to happen, because there’s no other way for it to end.