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By Brendan Loy

The Irish Trojan & the Mid-MajorityIn 2005, basketball writer extraordinare Kyle Whelliston (seen at left with yours truly at the 2007 BracketBusters game at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse) caught ESPN’s eye with his 100 Games Project on his blog, The Mid-Majority. Impressed, the Worldwide Leader hired Kyle to be a freelance mid-major correspondent.

Truth be told, it was always an odd pairing: Kyle is both an exceptional talent and a cerebral iconoclast — in his own words, “a smartass traveling reporter who talks as much about losing as winning, who posts more about philosophy than basketball.” He’s also a zealous devotee of the “Other 24,” a passionate defender of mid-majordom who truly does not care one whit about the major-conference teams that are ESPN’s bread and butter (e.g., “Pat, you know I don’t give a f*** about Louisville”), and who disdains the casual bandwagon fans who treat mid-major teams as disposable objects to be bracketed and followed for a few days every March, then forgotten for the other 360 or so days of the year. (For this reason, I think Kyle has somewhat soured on me, believing me to be such a fan, which I can’t entirely dispute. My A.D.D.-ish-ness prevents me from following the mid-majors with Kyle’s relentless focus; I could never do what he does. But I still admire it greatly, regardless of whether the feeling is as mutual as it once was.) Furthermore, Kyle is vehemently opposed to what he incisively calls “sportz,” which are practically bankable currency at ESPN. Kyle has fought to preserve a sort of alternate universe in which basketball for basketball’s sake is the only thing that matters — and all the other sportzy crap spewed relentlessly by the Sportz-MSM-Interwebs Industrial Complex, an axis whose hub is arguably ESPN itself, is completely out of the picture.

But ESPN wanted someone to cover the mid-majors — and to serve as a sort of corporate P.R. ambassador to the mid-majors, demonstrating that ESPN cares (or carez?) about them. Kyle, meanwhile, wanted to be the mid-majors’ ambassador to the world, telling their story to as large an audience as possible, and the platform — and funds — that he received from ESPN allowed him to do that more effectively. Thus, a grand marriage of convenience was born. (At least that’s my take on it.)

The marriage lasted until early 2009, when ESPN, facing the same sort of budget cuts that everyone was grappling with in those dark days of economic PANIC!!!, told Kyle it would have to cut his contributions to the site — and his pay — in half. Here’s how Kyle tells the story:

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, exactly?

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.

The “giant brick barn” is Lucas Oil Stadium, home of next weekend’s Final Four, and Kyle’s essay “The Sports Bubble” was a reflection on the stadium’s status as a perfect symbol for both the macrocosmic tremors shaking the sports world (and the economy at large), as well as the microcosmic matter of Kyle’s ESPN employment and his diminishing funds. Excerpt:

INDIANAPOLIS — We are on the cusp of a wonderful new chapter in American history. Our great nation will once again be a place of logic and reason, a country where simple answers don’t cut it, where perpetual double-digit percentage growth is no longer expected nor demanded, where an enterprise’s true worth is measured by its value to the marketplace instead of its ability to be subsidized. At least we hope against hope that this will be the case.

I write this to you in the literal shadow of a true icon of America’s Nonsense Era. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the 2010 Final Four, rises up next to the Indianapolis skyline like a giant Monopoly hotel. It’s a place where American-style football is played eight times a year. The regular tenant pays its employees millions of dollars each, paychecks funded by VIP tickets sold to the very same advertisers and companies struggling to explain themselves in the new logic-based economy. Working fans were priced out of the building before it was even built, and they can stay home and watch the games on free television anyway.

Does all of this make any sustainable sense to you? Doesn’t this strike you as completely fucking ridiculous? Big-time American sports is just another bubble, with as fragile a meniscus as those of the dot-com boom or the failed, suburban house-as-ATM movement.

No part of the Sports Bubble, not even the attached layer of media soap-scum, is immune to structural weakness. Just under a month ago, while staying in this very city, I was given advance warning that ESPN.com is planning 50 percent cuts to its college sports coverage, and I was put on notice that my contributions would likely be halved in the new year. Earlier today, I was notified that beginning in February, I will indeed be cut in half — writing and chatting every other week instead of weekly. …

[Y]ou know and I know that this site, and this journey, has never been about watching games through a TV filter. The Mid-Majority has always been about the open road, risk, struggle, and sleeping in truck stops. Since the site opened four years ago, I’ve attended 484 games from coast to coast. If I can’t do this the right way, I’d rather be doing something else.

Kyle then asked his readers — a remarkable community of dedicated, passionate fans who love the “Other 24″ and deeply appreciate Kyle’s approach to covering them — for donations to keep TMM going despite the ESPN pay cut. The audience responded in a big way, pouring in thousands of dollars, and Season 5 of The Mid-Majority was saved.

Unfortunately, ESPN responded in a big way, too, as Kyle explained in this contemporaneous post:

PHILADELPHIA — I have just received word, within the hour, that I have been immediately relieved of my duties with ESPN.com (all of them, not just half). I have truly enjoyed a period of almost four years working with the Worldwide Leader in Sports. I thank the staff for taking a chance on a blogger back in 2005. I also appreciate their (unknowing) subsidy of this website and its experiments, during what turned out to be a prolonged and protracted timeframe. ESPN and I worked together to create a new, unique type of college basketball journalism that served a traditionally underserved niche.

I will now respond to five randomly-chosen, boolean questions from the internal audience.

Q: Does this have anything to do with “The Sports Bubble”?

A: Yes.

Q: Will you break your previous promise and speak ill of the Worldwide Leader, and assume a throne in the pantheon of martyrs to La Revolucion?

A. No. …

We will never speak of this again.

Kyle had previously made clear that he would not engage in ESPN-bashing, writing in “The Sports Bubble” that “I consider those writers whom have taken that route the lowest form of tactless vermin, and I have no respect for them.” But he eventually broke his “never speak of this again” pledge, in large part because some folks at ESPN decided to take the “tactless vermin” route, burning bridges and spreading rumors about Kyle and the reasons for his firing. Hence Kyle’s essay, more than 10 months later, which I’ve already quoted from above, titled “The ESPN Years.” It is, like all of Kyle’s writing, a thoughtful, provocative take on the situation — neither a slash-and-burn, blaze-of-glory exposé of the Worldwide Leader’s eeeeevilness, nor an obsequious pandering to his former corporate benefactors, but simply an honest, keeping-it-real explanation of what happened and what Kyle learned during his years with ESPN. It’s well worth reading in its entirety. (So is “The Sports Bubble,” and so are Kyle’s follow-up bubble-related essays, “Bubble Friction and “Bubblefighters.” For that matter, just about anything in Kyle’s essays category is worth reading in full. But I digress.) Here’s the part where he relates the moment of his firing:

“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.”

Although the continuation of Season 5 was assured, thanks to those reader donations, the end of the Whelliston-Worldwide Leader marriage of convenience put Season 6 of The Mid-Majority — i.e., the current season — in severe jeopardy. Significant additional fundraising was needed to keep the site going. But Kyle’s readers came through again, and TMM has continued, as delightful and insightful as ever, for the 2009-10 campaign.

*    *    *    *    *

Now, flash forward to today. After the greatest opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in recent memory, if not ever, for mid-majordom — and for college basketball in general — TMM’s Season 6 is on the brink of ending with a profound whimper. Kyle’s season ends when the last below-the-Red-Line team is eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. We’re down to just one such team, Butler. If they win tonight, Season 6 will continue, and Kyle will follow the Bulldogs to the Final Four. If they lose, on the other hand, it’s over. The End. Kyle’s annual “Epilogue” will be published Monday, and that’ll be it.

Worse, a Butler loss tonight would mean a rather inglorious ending to Season 6, with Kyle doing exactly what he hates — “watching games on my couch,” or a media room, or someplace else with a TV — instead of being there in person to see the finale. That’s a consequence of his decision to attend the Houston regional, where St. Mary’s was playing, with his backup plan being the St. Louis regional, where Northern Iowa was playing. If the Gaels had won last night, Kyle would be attending their Elite Eight game tomorrow; if they’d lost but the Panthers had won, he’d be en route to Missouri right now for tomorrow’s UNI-Tennessee regional final. Instead, SMC and UNI were both eliminated last night, and Kyle can’t get to (and isn’t credentialed for) Salt Lake City in time for this afternoon’s Butler game. So Season 6 would, as I said, end with a whimper if the Bulldogs lose to Kansas State tonight.

Which brings me to the title of this post: “The Mid-Majority, the Butler Bulldogs, Sports Bubble Stadium, and Fate.” If Butler wins, Kyle will be following the greatest mid-major story since George Mason to the Final Four. But not just any Final Four. It’s a Final Four in Butler’s home city of Indianapolis — the very city that Kyle has declared the capital of Hoops Nation, whose beating heart is the “cathedral” otherwise known as Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s home court.

But that’s not all. Indeed, that’s not even the half of it. The Final Four is, of course, not being held at Hinkle — it’s being held at Lucas Oil Stadium, the very monstrosity that triggered “The Sports Bubble,” set into motion the above-described sequence of events, and threatened the very existence of Season 6 of The Mid-Majority.

How glorious, how appropriate, how fucking perfect would it be, if, instead of ending with Kyle watching television somewhere in Houston, Season 6 ends with Kyle on the sidelines at Sports Bubble Stadium, watching and tweeting and reporting as Butler takes on the big boys and — dare to dream — cuts down the nets in its home city?

I’m not predicting that the Bulldogs will win the national championship. But I’m convinced that, for tonight at least, the stars are aligned, the fates are in sync, the result is preordained: Butler will win, and they and Kyle Whelliston will go to the Final Four at Sports Bubble Stadium. Destiny has deemed it so. The meta-storyline is just too perfect (and the alternative too anticlimactic) for the “correct” result not to be fated.

(And now I shall go knock on wood repeatedly.)

GO BULLDOGS!!! EXTEND SEASON 6!!! SEND KYLE INTO THE BUBBLE!!!

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