George Solomon Reflects on Bob Ley’s Career at ESPN

By

George Solomon Reflects on Bob Ley’s Career at ESPN
Jul 2, 2019

ESPN lost a powerful voice for journalism when Bob Ley, who was Mr. “Outside the Lines” for years and a conscience of the network for nearly 40 years, announced his retirement June 28. At a time when intelligent, hard-hitting sports journalism could be at a crossroads, Ley’s coverage of the vital and edgy issues in sports was a beacon of light to those who looked beyond the fun and games of what is today’s sports world.

The impending closure of ESPN The Magazine in September and uncertain future of Sports Illustrated have those of us who admire the investigative, reporting and writing prowess of both magazines concerned for the future of serious sports journalism.

ESPN says it will continue doing long-form (investigative) journalism online, after its magazine shuts down. And Sports Illustrated, now published twice a month instead of weekly, may be bought by someone, or some company, seeking to maintain or grow the legacy of Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Andre Laguerre, Bill Nack, Rick Reilly and Gary Smith.

Still, ESPN losing Ley is significant in so many ways. He knew the importance of news, knew how to work a story, understood the abuses and unfairness in sports and was never overwhelmed by the hype.

In a statement, Ley, 64, said, “To be clear, this is my decision. I enjoy the best of health and the many blessings of friends and family, and it is in that context that I’m making this change.”

Ley had taken multi-month sabbatical last October, so his announcement was not a complete surprise.

Ley told the Los Angeles Times’ Tom Hoffarth: “I came from a school of journalism where your editor would kick the crap out of you if you injected your opinion into a news story.”

“On the big stories, Bob Ley was the key guy,” said the retired John Walsh, former executive vice president for ESPN who pushed the network to compete with newspapers on the big and breaking stories of the day. “He could drive a story and stay with it until its conclusion.”

In the day, a sports editor had to watch ESPN’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter for breaking news to stay competitive, although NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski has maintained that tradition.

Vince Doria, who like Walsh retired recently, said: “In my role as senior vice president for news coverage at ESPN, there was no greater ally than Bob Ley. He was the public face of journalism at the network. Because ESPN was a business partner of virtually every league and team on the planet, critics frequently questioned how aggressive we could be in covering these entities.

“But the presence of Bob Ley at the OTL anchor desk, on the E:60 set, delivered a large measure of credibility to our coverage. His incisive questioning, his relentless pursuit of the truth, his diligence to be both precise and accurate was obvious to anyone paying attention.

“He is the primary architect in creating ESPN’s reputation as a respected news organization that pursued the most important stories in the sports world, despite stepping on some powerful feet.”

The day Ley announced his retirement, he had a cozy interview with colleague and likely OTL successor, Jeremy Schaap. The even drank a glass of red wine together, talked about old times, journalism and its significance, with an eye toward the future.

“I’ll try to follow your lead,” said Schaap, knowing the size of the shoes he must now fill. Two days before, Ley was inducted into the National Sports Media Association’s Hall of Fame in Winston-Salem, N.C. Fitting.

***

Several weeks prior to Ley’s announcement came the news that ESPN would no longer sponsor (at a cost of $10,000 annually), with PEN America a lifetime achievement award in sportswriting and the nonfiction sports book of the year. Both awards were considered among the top prizes in the business. This year’s lifetime achievement award winner was Jackie MacMullan.

Bob Ley and Jackie MacMullan. Who wouldn’t want to give them awards?

Comments are closed.