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How Bob Ley Became ESPN’s Most Important Broadcaster

The network’s longest-serving anchor is the perfect figure to interpret the collision of sport and politics. And the Worldwide Leader needs him now more than ever.

Jason Raish

Bob Ley still wears monogrammed dress shirts. His tassel loafers are polished to a high shine. But he no longer wears a tie on TV. The sartorial decision came down more than a year ago as part of a reboot of Ley’s show Outside the Lines. With other ESPN personalities, the change would have barely registered. But Bob Ley? Removing Ley’s tie is like removing a banker’s. You don’t trust him any less, but you wonder what happened.

One afternoon last week, Ley and I were driving through Bristol on our way to a late lunch. Ley was full of energy. He’d just returned from a vacation in Nantucket, where he’d binged Season 4 of Bosch and hosted a World Cup viewing party. True, the man the Encyclopedia Blazertannica calls “a tastemaking prophet for football in America” would have preferred to host the actual World Cup, which now belongs to Fox. But this month, as Ley was relaxing at the Stone Pony in New Jersey—Jersey is Bob’s birthplace; Springsteen is his lodestar—an idea struck him. “I’m thinking to myself, I’m having a helluva time,” he said. “I couldn’t have done any of this if I’d gone to the World Cup.”

Ley, who is 63, started working at ESPN three days after the network launched in 1979. He is so familiar with the Bristol campus that he has been known to show up in the cafeteria with the exact change to buy a sandwich and a drink. When Ley hosts the network’s Boston Marathon bombing coverage or captains its all-night wake for Muhammad Ali, a certain image takes hold in the public mind. Ley is a capital-J journalist, a man who rises above Bristol’s petty intrigues to a higher moral plane. “From the day he started to almost 40 years later now, Bob Ley has been our conscience,” said his pal Chris Berman.

In person, Ley has always been jazzier than he is on-air. He has a rare combination of gravitas and self-awareness, like your dream father-in-law. He gives words like “chorizo” a proper and enthusiastic pronunciation. Last year, I watched Ley and Jeremy Schaap on the set of E:60, the weekend magazine show they host together, trading trivia and odd facts. When Schaap mentioned an event that occurred on July 14, Ley sighed happily and said, “Ah, Bastille Day.”

It is telling of Ley’s standing that he both promotes and sabotages the “liberal ESPN” debate. The stray Breitbart article will tell you that Ley, a conservative, has argued ESPN needs more ideological diversity. Yet if you define woke as cognizant and suspicious of the reigning power structure, there is no ESPNer who has been woker longer than Ley. He has gotten more stories on ESPN’s air about race, sex, gender, and labor than anyone.

“There is no agenda here,” said David Sarosi, the coordinating producer of OTL and E:60. “If Bob wanted there to be an agenda—and it was his own—do you think those stories would be on?”

Ley is still ESPN’s voice of record. But lately, two things have changed his place in the Bristol universe. First, the kind of stories that Outside the Lines has obsessed over for years now flourish across the network. Last week, Mina Kimes published a profile of Aly Raisman, and more than 140 survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse appeared at the ESPYs ceremony. This is ESPN taking an Outside the Lines–style story and making it into a networkwide cause.

At the same time, Ley has come to—tentatively—embrace the house style of the modern ESPN host. “I think I know where I’m at,” Ley told me. “You’re not going to go out there and start throwing meringue pies.” But there has been a significant change to the man’s aura, and it couldn’t have been better timed. The new, tieless Bob Ley was ready when Outside the Lines hit the mother lode.

Outside the Lines has sometimes been more revered at ESPN than it has been defended or promoted. The show has gone through endless permutations. It was a monthly special upon its creation in 1990. It swung between ESPN’s nighttime and daytime schedules. For a while, OTL was exiled to ESPN2 during NFL season. Now, it’s a year-round, 1 p.m. mainstay on the mothership. Its host’s M.O. has remained the same. “Fearless journalism,” Ley has said. “Honest and fair.”

In spring 2016, Andy Tennant, the executive producer of OTL and E:60, gave Ley a polite nudge. TV news anchors have changed, Tennant told him. Whether in cable news or sports, Voice of God is out. Anchors are funnier. Takier. A touch more casual. The news anchor’s mind is as much an attraction as the news itself. Tennant sent Ley clips of John Oliver and Jon Stewart, suggesting that Ley could do his own version of their monologues.

“People want to know what Bob has to say about something,” Sarosi said. “Convincing Bob of that was where we began.”

Ley wasn’t immediately convinced. “There was a lot of anxiety; there were a lot of dinners,” Tennant said. They polished off more than one bottle of red wine. “Being the voice of authority on the mountaintop—it gives the audience a certain sense of who you are and where you are,” said Schaap. “But it also provides a safety net. I can play this role and I don’t have to take risks.

Ley told me he came around when he began to notice just how much TV had changed around him. The day before our lunch, Ley watched postgame coverage of the Donald Trump–Vladimir Putin summit. “Christ, just look at what everybody was saying after the press conference yesterday on hard-news shows,” Ley said. “They immediately reached for their adjectives.”

So Ley agreed to reach for a few adjectives, and ditch his tie, while fiercely guarding his journalistic soul. Now, Schaap said with a big smile, “He loves being more of a freewheeling Bob Ley.”

Most days, Outside the Lines ends with Ley looking into the camera and delivering the Bob Ley Take, or BLT. On the day I watched the show, Ley did a comic piece on the Chargers’ mascot that was written in the nerdy-scholarly style of the old SportsCenter “on-cameras.” But the BLTs that have gotten the most traction were Ley’s defense of Sergio Dipp, or his tribute to laid-off producer David Brofsky, which left Ley nearly in tears. When given the license to opine, Ley took a position not just as ESPN’s conscience but as its de facto ombudsman.

Even with 39 years at ESPN, Tennant felt Ley lacked the visibility of other personalities. “We really wanted to tap into Bob and, in essence, make him more of a star,” Tennant said. OTL’s opening credits now feature a this-is-your-career montage. A yellow logo is meant to evoke the crime-scene tape seen on OTL stories. The screen fills with a Ley-ish, aggressively nonpartisan slogan: “Follow the truth.”

Ley would only go so far. He politely declined an invitation to “play Papi” for a week on Highly Questionable. But as part of OTL’s makeover, he consented to even bigger changes on what stories the show covers.

An episode of OTL now bangs out several stories instead of spending 20 minutes on a single topic. Over lunch, Ley told me he would have loved to have led that day’s show with Kimes’s piece about Raisman. But Ley and Sarosi led with news of Le’Veon Bell failing to agree to a long-term contract with the Steelers. Ley would have Louis Riddick, a favorite guest, on to talk about it.

Chewing on the NFL or NBA news of the day makes OTL sound more like other shows on ESPN’s schedule. Indeed, while watching Ley interview Riddick from the control room, I looked at a monitor and saw the First Take replay airing on ESPN2. Riddick was opining on Le’Veon Bell on that show, too, meaning he was talking about the same story on two ESPN networks at the same time.

“One thing that is a concern here right now is: Are we talking about the same topics over and over and over and over again, incessantly and at length over the course of the day, without differentiation?” Tennant said.

Ley said: “You give ’em an NFL topic and you try and keep it as analytical and as OTL-ish as you can.” Meaning, Ley probes for moral and labor and league issues within such a story. And, if the moment is right, he just says what he thinks.

“The gap between off-air Bob and on-air Bob has closed considerably,” Sarosi said. “And that’s a good thing for everybody. That was the goal.”

Last September, Ley was at his granddaughter’s birthday party when he glanced at his phone and saw the future of OTL. Trump had just laid into kneeling NFL players at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama. For years, Ley liked to point to stories that sit at the sports-and-society nexus and insist—in his indirect, Voice of God way—that this is what’s worth paying attention to. He no longer needed to bother. Those stories were now Topic A.

Trump may be a bogeyman that haunts ESPN, one that makes its executives weak-kneed and emboldens its most ludicrous critics. But Trump vs. the NFL has been a boon for Outside the Lines. “It’s been the full-employment act,” Ley said. “On Mondays during the NFL season, we looked at the numbers. The majority of the time, we would lift the number of the SportsCenter that handed us the show at 1 on a Monday. So much stuff was going on.”

Ley and OTL have maintained their usual diet of investigations, too. On January 26, the show unveiled a chunk of new reporting about Michigan State’s response to sexual assault allegations. Indianapolis Star reporters had long since broken the Nassar story, but Outside the Lines put ESPN’s initials on it and helped broaden it beyond gymnastics. Michigan State’s interim president was left deflecting questions about the story, instead trying to criticize ESPN’s own history of sexual harassment.

As Richard Deitsch has noted, ESPN sometimes holds up Ley as a talisman to cover up its journalistic shortcomings. The executive Rob King once said of Ley: “He’s a man who commands respect and praise, even on a day in which we could be doing 24 hours of LeBron arm-wrestling LaVar Ball while Tim Tebow is the referee.”

But this is Ley’s preferred role: the guy who can take an issue like the national anthem and do it “straight down the middle,” lowering the viewer into a warm bath of truth. After Keith Olbermann signed a new ESPN contract, Ley assured executives that the two men could handle a segment on the NFL’s new anthem policy. “They’re letting us play with the sharp tools,” Ley said, “and we haven’t taken a finger off yet.”

As Trump was conspiring to give material to OTL, ESPN was mired in one of its most turbulent stretches in recent memory (which also involved Trump). What, I asked Ley, did you make of the last year at ESPN?

“What’d the Queen say—‘annus horribilis’?” Ley said. “I think Elizabeth nailed it.”

It’s almost hard to remember the full list of ESPN horribilis: two rounds of layoffs; the “slave auction”; Barstool Van Talk; Robert Lee; former president John Skipper’s resignation. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ley occasionally reached out to Skipper to talk about the network’s need for more diverse viewpoints. One of those meetings was scheduled for 8 a.m. one Friday in September. At 7:20, Trump attacked ESPN on Twitter.

In what turned out to be his final year, Skipper gave OTL a new studio, graphics, and staff. This was as Ley appeared next to Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham in the list of things that annoyed the NFL about ESPN.

When Skipper resigned in December, I told Ley, I wondered whether the company would have the same commitment to journalism.

“When John left under those circumstances, yeah, it was difficult,” Ley said. “Difficult personally and difficult professionally. But all things considered, I think we’re in fairly good shape. I really do.”

“Look, I play with house money,” he continued. “If they piss me off, I’ll say, ‘When’s the next flight to Florida?’ And they know it.”

“It’s never like that at all,” Ley said, backing off a bit. “I kid. But the idea that you can’t do this or you can’t do that …” Ley came away from his conversations with new president Jimmy Pitaro confident his mandate for “fearless journalism” wouldn’t change. “Jimmy has made it clear that it’s business as it’s been for me,” Ley said.

Meanwhile, ESPN executives wanted the “new Bob” to get some outside recognition. They wanted him to win the Sports Emmy for best studio host. The idea was in the air: Recently, when Bob Costas won the award, he suggested that Ley should win it since he’s in a studio five days a week.

On May 8, Ley was sitting down front in a theater at Lincoln Center when Melissa Stark read his name from the lectern. The ESPN contingent gave Ley a standing ovation as he walked to the stage.

“I ran through the theater and somehow made my way backstage,” Tennant said. “I saw him. He had just gotten his photo taken with the statuette. He looked at me. I looked at him. It was almost like, What do you say?

Tennant continued: “I quoted his musical idol: ‘It’s been a long time comin’, my friend.’ A tear ran down his cheek. We had a great hug.”

Ley might opine more on TV, Tenant said, but he was unlikely to emote about the Emmy in front of me. “When you talk to him, he’ll be like, ‘Eh, it didn’t mean anything.’”

Indeed, when I asked Ley about the Emmy, he was awfully respectful. He wouldn’t even offer a faux-modest proclamation about how his brand of journalism had triumphed, in slightly different form, in an uncertain age. But even he couldn’t deny the May 8 ceremony was a kind of milestone. For a single night, Bob Ley was once again wearing a tie.

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