As we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns 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.”
In addition to its own staff, OTL works with ESPN’s enterprise unit. Ley points to a recent picture of himself with Barr, Tom Farrey and Mark Fainaru-Wada, three of the best reporters in the business, as an example of ESPN’s depth of talent.
However, there is a considerable investment to maintain a staff of that quality. Fox Sports 1 recently made cutbacks in its news division.
Ley says the journalism commitment should be an essential part of ESPN’s overall mission.
“Sports are such a big part of our culture,” Ley said. “There are going to be times when stories arise and people will tune to ESPN [for coverage]. When we cover these stories, you want to have that credibility and track record.”
Ley says OTL has caused “church-and-state” issues with sensitive stories on ESPN’s network partners with pro and college leagues. Brofsky maintains network executives never have told OTL to stay away from covering a story, and that includes the NFL concussion issue.
Ley admits the fallout from ESPN pulling out of the “League of Denial” concussion documentary with PBS had an impact on OTL because of the perception issues.
“It was not a pleasant situation,” Ley said. “I think if all parties had to revisit that situation, we might have had a different outcome.”
OTL, though, never backed off its coverage of concussions, breaking several stories. “Has anyone been more aggressive on concussions than ‘Outside The Lines’?” Ley said.
Ley remains the show’s constant presence through the years. Brofsky marvels at his commitment.
“What makes Bob so good is that he cares so much about what we do,” Brofsky said. “I’ll get an email from Bob at 1 in the morning and then another one at 6 [a.m.]. His preparation is amazing.”
The good news for OTL is that Ley, 60, recently signed a new multi-year contract with ESPN. That means he should be around for the show’s 30th anniversary in 2020. However, he wouldn’t commit to being on hand for the 50th anniversary.
“I just hope I’m on the right side of the grass,” he said.
The enthusiasm remains strong for Ley. He says breaking stories on OTL “never gets old.”
“We’re proud of what we’ve created,” Ley said. “The tough part is to maintain that quality. Nobody sets the bar higher than we do for ourselves.”
Here’s more reading on OTL:
The complete rundown for what will be featured on Tuesday’s show via my site at Sherman Report.
Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News does a Q/A with Ley.
Richard Deitsch of SI.com has interviews and continues to his campaign to get ESPN to give OTL better placement.