An excerpt of my latest column for Poynter:
Bob Ley boils down the essence of “Outside The Lines.”
“Let’s go commit some journalism,” Ley said.
There isn’t another show on sports television — and few others in television, period — that can match ESPN’s crown jewel when it comes to committing quality journalism on a regular basis. “Outside the Lines,” also known as OTL, will celebrate its 25th anniversary Tuesday with a one-hour special on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET.
Ley, who was the anchor for the first OTL on May 7, 1990, admits the landmark anniversary caught him by surprise.
“A bunch of us were sitting around and we went, ‘Holy crap, we’ve been doing this for 25 years,’” Ley said. “They cleared out an hour in primetime for us to do a show. The task has been uplifting and unfortunate because it’s been impossible to decide what to put in.”
OTL initially was conceived by former ESPN executive John Walsh as a periodic special to allow the network to take what Ley calls “a deep dive” into subjects that go beyond the playing field. The first show examined the obstacles athletes face in adjusting to life after retirement.
In 2000, OTL became a regular staple on Sunday mornings and now also airs Monday through Friday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Quite simply, it is consistently the best program on ESPN. There are numerous days when other outlets are required to react to a story “first reported by ‘Outside The Lines.’”
In lauding OTL’s anniversary, ESPN president John Skipper called Ley, “The Walter Cronkite of sports journalism.” Ley found that platitude to be “extremely humbling.”
However, a more apt comparison for Ley and OTL might be to the vintage heyday of Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline.” On most days, the show gives an intense examination to one or two subjects.
Many of those shows have dealt with issues that detail the profound impact of sports on our culture: Sexual abuse, PEDs, racial issues, to name a few. For instance, Sunday’s show featured an excellent follow-up report from John Barr on the plight of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired after OTL did a show in 2013 revealing videos that exposed his questionable coaching practices.
“It’s not highlights and it’s not sexy sometimes,” said OTL producer David Brofsky. “Plenty of our topics are ones you won’t see other shows ever touching. We’re going to do those stories because they are important, and we’re going to do them well.”