Let's make one thing clear up top: Norby invited me. That would be Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production. I have the email right here. Sent from TalentOffice@espn.com at 4:09 p.m. on Aug. 5. Subject line: "2011 'State of the Union' Talent Meeting - Sent on Behalf of Norby Williamson." It reads in part:
Please join me for a mandatory Talent meeting scheduled for Thursday, August 25th. We are planning to make this an annual "State of the Union," which provides you with an opportunity to hear about the latest ESPN business, Talent Office initiatives and other pertinent talent related topics and discussions. I am looking forward to having an open dialogue on our priorities and strategies for the upcoming year
I can't tell you why I got this, but I have an idea. A few years ago, in another life, I factchecked for ESPN The Magazine on a freelance basis. There is no figure more extraneous to the ESPN multiverse than the guy in New York whose job is to make sure Stephen A. Smith spells "Stojakovic" correctly, but my guess is that I wound up on an ESPN distribution list anyway and that some poor soul simply forgot to cross off my name when I left the place in 2009. That's my guess, anyway. The point is, Norby asked me to come. He wanted me to hear about the latest initiatives. He wanted an open dialogue with me about priorities and strategies and other pertinent talent-related topics. He said it was mandatory.
He said "please."
As a friend put it, the punch bowl had invited the turd.
* * *
What would you like to know about my afternoon in Bristol? Do you want to know what it's like being interrogated by a man named Norby? What it's like to stand in the hallway just outside of Content Rooms A-B-C of Bristol Campus Building 4, faint sounds of corporate self-congratulation floating from the room, three vice presidents in front of you, eyeing you, looking at you as if you were the last heretic in Spain? What it's like to wait in a lobby as security guards materialize out of the walls, each one bigger than the last?
Let's start at the beginning: I caught a ride to Bristol with a former ESPN colleague, Kevin Collier, another onetime factchecker who, while aware my intentions were somewhere south of innocent, at least had an honest reason of his own to attend: He was in the running for an odd job or two at ESPN and had hoped to speak with some editors in Bristol after the meeting. He would do no such thing.
We arrived 15 minutes late and made our way down to Content Rooms A-B-C of Bristol Campus Building 4. I had imagined Content Rooms A-B-C of Bristol Campus Building 4 to be an auditorium—recessed seating, proscenium stage, maybe a balcony. La Scala, basically. I pushed through the doors and instead found myself more or less in Norby Williamson's lap. This is only a mild exaggeration. The room was narrow—far too narrow for anyone to take notes and photographs inconspicuously; a tape recorder was out of the question. What's more, a writer I know recognized me immediately. It was at this point that I said the following to myself: "Shit."
Norby, it turns out, was hitting the quarter-pole of his address. We took up a position at the back, just downwind from Chris Berman. This side of the room was lousy with Talent—Mort; Keyshawn; Kordell Stewart, Cris Carter; Matthew Berry; Tom Jackson, who appeared to be sleeping. Colin Cowherd was to my left. Linda Cohn was somewhere around here. I took what notes I could. Norby was followed by a guy whose name I didn't catch who said some needlessly sinister-sounding things about bringing ESPN to Hispanics, and he gave way to Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, who talked about The Brand and how strong The Brand was—a "formidable" Brand with unprecedented reach, Brand-wise. If The Brand has a weakness, Blyn said, it is the perception that The Brand is "less face-painted fan" and more "slick money man," whatever that means. (This was the same guy, incidentally, who threw up the slide that likened ESPN to The Little Engine That Could.) Speakers came and went. Norby shook some hands around me. There was a little light shit-talking of the NBC Sports Network (né Versus), which, later on, John Skipper would bitchily make a point of calling OLN.
It was now a little after 2 p.m., and I have to say right here that my recollection of the rest of the afternoon is shaky. Our first dispatch had just gone up, and after a brief spell hiding next to a Xerox machine, I moved to the other side of the room. Norby was over here, too, shaking hands. Steve Anderson was on stage talking about the internal dating policy, a subject near and dear to Deadspin, and I tried to listen closely, but now here was Norby next to me, sipping water, and now here he was, holding out his hand, and now here he was, smiling, opening his mouth, two rows of teeth glinting in the clinical light of the room.
"Hi, I'm Norby."
OK. He's just gladhanding. Meeting the help. Keep cool.
"Tommy," I said, shaking his hand.
"Tommy from the magazine."
"What's your last name?"
"Craggs. Tommy Craggs. I was invited through the magazine."
Did he recognize the name?
"Oh, so you're a writer?"
"Writer. Factchecker. Mostly factchecking."
He nodded. I watched the stage. I have no idea who was talking at this point, but I watched whoever it was intently, as if it were Cicero up there, as if there were nothing in the world more important than hearing this open dialogue about priorities and strategies and all the latest initiatives.
"Did you move up to Bristol?"
The magazine left its New York office earlier this summer to mind-meld with the Borg Queen in Bristol.
"Nah, I'm staying in New York. I've got some other stuff going on there."
"How long have you been with us?"
He nodded some more and looked at the stage. Another sip of water, this one deeper, a sip lasting an eternity. How much water could a man drink? Why was he still standing here?
"Mike," he said to a man nearby. "Can I talk to you?"
This was Mike Soltys, vice president of communications. The two slipped out of the room. Norby returned a minute later, and I heard him mutter to someone to my left that they were having "Internet problems." Skipper was on stage, cracking a dumb joke about how he and John Walsh weren't dating, despite appearances.
And then, a tap on my shoulder. "Can we talk to you outside for a minute?"
* * *
Later, my companion Kevin would tell me that he saw us there—me, Norby, Soltys, and Vince Doria—and immediately bolted for the car. I remember little of our interaction, I have to confess. I remember Norby saying he didn't want to make a big deal out of this, and then I remember the three of them arraying themselves in front of me like the Lollipop Guild. I remember getting the same line of questioning that Norby had put me through. I remember wondering how long to keep up the half-lie that I was "from the magazine." I remember finally copping to being from Deadspin only after they'd asked me if I'd been sending messages to "other websites." I remember a lot of grave-faced harrumphing. I remember offering my hand, only to be spurned by each vice president in succession. I remember pleading that, in fact, I had been invited by Norby himself, that it was a very polite invitation, and who was I to say no? I remember Vince Doria not believing that I had ever worked for ESPN and not believing that I might've gotten an invitation through legitimate means. I remember the look of smug idiot knowingness on his face. You can't put one past ol' Vince, the look said. "Sure, sure," he kept saying. I remember Doria saying, "But you knew you weren't supposed to be here, right?" which is the silliest goddamn thing one journalist could say to another. (If Adam Schefter were mistakenly invited to the NFL owners' annual child sacrifice, you think he'd turn it down?)
And I remember Doria saying, finally, "Let's get this clown out of here."
It was Soltys who took me upstairs to the lobby. He was pleasant enough, given the circumstances, and I'd like to think that some vestigial part of him, some part of him that hadn't yet been swallowed up by The Brand, secretly appreciated what we'd done. We'd not only come to ESPN; we'd walked in through the front door. Norby and Doria joined us once again, and there we stood, the meeting over, the Talent filing past us. A magazine reporter I know and like very much, Peter Keating, saw me and came over to say hello. I told him I was in trouble. He thought I was joking. He looked at the VPs. They shook their heads. His face dropped, and he took a step away from me. Security began to collect in the lobby—one guard, two guards, now three guards. They knew I had come with Kevin, but no one could find him. Doria brought up the Deadspin post on his phone, and I had the very strange experience of reading my own work over his shoulder. He allowed that he didn't think much of my story.
It was decided that I would wait in the security office until Kevin had presented himself, and a very nice guard escorted me there—a rock quarry of a man, also named Kevin. He asked me what I'd done. I explained that I was from Deadspin, and that I'd been invited to this meeting, and so on. "Deadspin," he said, laughing a little. "I heard those guys are rough." Naw, I said. My friend Kevin arrived, and off we drove into the gray Bristol afternoon, leaving all those little engines and all those slick money men behind.