Bob Ley was the one guy we envisioned during his 40-year run at ESPN who didn’t “have all the fun,” like the book title said.
While self-centered chaos broke out around him, he was the one who had to ask those around his cubical to please hold it down because he couldn’t hear his phone conversation with Arthur Ashe.
Oral histories of the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports have documented a cacophonous collection of egos and attention seekers, crossing lines of decorum. In more recent times, ESPN has devolved into SportsCenter personalities unable to get out of their own way in Twitter feuds with the sitting U.S. president.
Ley was known as the General for the leeway he had in navigating through the corporate business relationship landmines, reinforcing that his way was most often the right way.
He lay low and was highly admired. His version of fun and self-fulfillment was as honorable and simple as submerging himself in trustworthiness and credibility.
In announcing his retirement from the company last week, the 64-year-old Ley admits that tributes heaped upon him have been “humbling beyond words.” Which may be kind of troubling. Thanks for what you did. We wish we could do things better.
His decision comes after a soul-searching extended sabbatical that goes back to October, when he stepped away from his daily duty as the voice of an “Outside the Lines” series that was smart enough to include his name in the title.
“I felt like Huck Finn,” Ley said Saturday, a reference to the idea that one can attend his own funeral just to hear folks’ glowing remarks about his departure. “It’ll take me a month to properly get back around to everyone. It’s also strangely confirming that at the same time I’m very much at peace with my decision.”
On Wednesday’s “Outside the Lines,” new host Jeremy Schaap had Ley as the “guest” and held him to the same standards of explaining the why and how of this newsworthy announcement.
If we were to treat our conversation with Ley as an exit interview, we’re grateful that he reinforces the belief that, in his words, “there’s a frantic run in this marketplace for clicks, for metrics, for profit in a fractionalized landscape. Some will do anything they can to keep a ‘breaking news’ banner up with the same story for eight hours, which is insulting the consumer’s intelligence.”
The reason you don’t know much beyond what you see and trust with Ley on TV is because, as he said, “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. I have definite political views, but if for no other reason [I don’t reveal them because] that it would just complicate my freaking life, no matter what the fourth-floor executives may think.”
Ley has been the magnetic force field recalibrating the company’s moral compass to point as much due north as possible because that’s what he was taught. It’s what he believes to be what’s still needed, and what’s too often missing. Maybe he can spend classroom time in the future to explain it.
“There have been criticisms leveled at ESPN and I don’t think any of that applied to our shows,” he said. “If we ever had someone on, we have to make a good-faith effort to balance it out. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes we swung and missed, but you’ve got to do that.
“If it looked like we had a liberal bent, it wasn’t a nefarious cabal. It was a function of the air supply in the northeast part of the country. If we were in Dallas or Nashville or Atlanta, it might be different. Which means everyone has to be aware and recognize it and then put personal feelings on the side because there is too much at stake.”
His stake in ESPN began at the beginning, joining the company two days after its Sept. 7, 1979, launch, and realizing that while “some watch other networks, many are fans of ESPN,” in how it became a cultural 24/7 force that redefined its rules of engagement all while Ley tried to keep it true.
Ley started as a “SportsCenter” anchor and dabbled in play-by-play, but his Walter Cronkite-like standing came from moving “Outside the Lines” as an episodic show in 1990 to a weekly entity in 2000 and then a daily production in 2003. Bryan Curtis at the Ringer wrote a profile on Ley last year that explained how he became “ESPN’s Most Important Broadcaster” because of the gravitas he brought simply by appearing amid a sea of self-indulgent showmanship.
Dan Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, said he believes ESPN “puts up a front of journalistic integrity until the NFL threatens them. But they told us the truth in 1979 – it’s an entertainment sports network, and journalism is only important as it fits their agenda.”
That said, Durbin contends, “Bob Ley brought a low-key professionalism to ESPN at a time when the network’s ‘personalities’ were screaming out for attention, yelling, ‘boo-yah’ and doing incredibly bad Howard Cosell impressions. During years that saw the rise and diminishing of ‘SportsCenter,’ ‘SportsNation’ and now sports talk shows, Ley continued to offer calm and insightful commentary. Other ESPN personalities may have been louder, but none was more professional. The network will miss his smart, relaxed style.”
Ley is not only thankful for how ESPN allowed him to leave mid-contract, but also in delaying his departure announcement until after a ceremony Monday in North Carolina where he was inducted into the National Sports Media Assn.’s Hall of Fame. Again, perfect timing. A walk-off home run.
His immediate plans: a Fourth of July visit from his grandkids, keeping tabs on his 87-year-old dad, catching a Southside Johnny show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., pull some weeds in the backyard around his rose bushes. More to his point, it’s also staying in touch with his alma mater, Seton Hall, about more teaching opportunities.
Ley also contends that in spite of narratives that things just won’t be the same without him, the “Outside the Lines” and “E:60” staff led by executive producer Andy Tennant, coordinating producer Dave Sarosi and producer Robbin Dunn, plus on-air talent such as Schaap and Ryan Smith, will “disprove that on a daily basis,” Ley said.
He is also fond of a quote attributed to the late French President and military man Charles de Gaulle, pointing out that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
“So let’s not get carried away,” Ley added.
Not so simple when you’re accustomed to seeing a face and hearing a voice on the screen that doesn’t automatically activate the malarkey meter.