Sunday Q&A: 25 years later, why we trust Bob Ley, ESPN’s “OG,” to keep coloring outside the lines

Bob Ley, left, meets with John Barr, Tom Farrey and Mark Fainaru-Wada in ESPN’s newsroom prior to the network's 25th anniversary show for "Outside The Lines." (ESPN photo)

Bob Ley, left, meets with John Barr, Tom Farrey and Mark Fainaru-Wada in ESPN’s newsroom prior to the network’s 25th anniversary show for “Outside The Lines.” (ESPN photo)

Without Bob Ley, one might envision ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” going off the tracks. You almost can’t spell “OTL” without the letters in Bob Ley’s name anyway, for those who think that way.

Almost a month ago, the 60-year-old agreed to a contract extension, saying his enjoyment and challenge in hosting and moderating the discussion of the six-days-a week, half-hour news-driven show continues to be worth his valued time.

(Rich Arden/ESPN Images)

(Rich Arden/ESPN Images)

The hunt-to-find series celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special setup on Tuesday at 4 p.m. on ESPN, where Ley and crew not only look back in its impact coming from a monthly test program in 1990 but also to making and breaking more news as it is today.

To help frame this silver anniversary properly, we enjoyed this golden conversation with Ley, who remains the longest-tenured ESPN on-air employee holding down a show that has produced nearly 2,000 daily episodes and 800 more on Sundays, according to the network’s count:

Q: Does 25 years of OTL sound about right?
Ley:
Well, we won’t know until the autopsy is taken (laughing). Yes, it sounds about right. It was one of those, ‘Oh, you’re right’ moments last fall when we were talking about when it all started – ‘1990? ’91? Oh, man, that’s 25 years.’ It was an organic realization by the staff, and they’ve all been there as long as me because, you know, I can’t find real work. So it was like, ‘Hey, we ought to do something like a television show (about the anniversary).’ We had a meeting about this during the depths of a terrible winter and I tried to set a tone: Let’s all resolve that we are embarking on an impossible task. We cannot synthesize and present 25 years in a one-hour show, which is really 50 minutes once you boil it down. At the end of the day, we’ll all cry about something that wasn’t in the show. But we can try our best. When you get around TV for a long time, you can get blasé and jaundice about it, but when we were in the studio the other day looking at some of the things we covered and seeing how this show will look, we were saying, ‘This is pretty good.’ We’re really proud of all this. We really are.

Q: You must be considering not just the awards won for the series, but the self-satisfaction at this point has to be high considering how it started as a monthly show (in 1990) and how it’s evolved.
Ley:
And you know, it was only ‘episodic’ back then, not even monthly that first year. ‘Episodic’ or ‘psychotic,’ however you want to put it. Then it went monthly, a weekly show in April of 2000 then a nightly show, then a weekday show in 2007. We’ve been the Bedouin Tribe, but people have found us. We did set the bar high and we try to get over it each day, but it is satisfying there’s still an audience for it. Increasingly you’ll get push back on Twitter – that’s officially the designated tool of the devil, let’s get that straight, and there are some who are so uniformed that I like to retweet them and sick the masses on them – but people want analysis and to learn about things and think along with us. That’s encouraging. It really is.

OTL_croppedQ: Are you aware that, in the Urban Dictionary, the entry for “OTL” is defined as “the term used to express a situation where you are so upset that you feel like getting on your hands on the floor and knees down to start crying”?
Ley:
I’ve had a few of those (laughing).
Q: If you combine the letters together, you can see where the ‘O’ is the person’s head down, the ‘T’ is arms stretched to the floor and the “L’ is the knees bent. How often did you ever feel that way after an OTL show, or before one?
Ley: You’re talking to an OG here who quoted Omar (Little, the character from HBO series “The Wire”) in connection with Sepp Blatter. Listen, there are always battles involved. Someone once did a documentary about Don Hewett, the late creator and the God Father of CBS’ ‘60 Minutes.’ They followed him around and it came to a screaming match he was having with (reporter) Mike Wallace. I sent it around to our folks and said, ‘Doesn’t it make you feel good that the same crap we engage in about this soundbite or that soundbite, this lead-in, that emphasis, see how the giants of the industry are just as much at each other’s throats as we have been? Obviously, there’s great passion that controls everything we do, but sometimes our meetings are better than our shows. We seriously joke about that. Just set up robotic cameras at our meetings. The things you feel unconstrained by fairness and decorum sometimes makes a better show.

Q: By the way, some of the other things that OTL stand for in the Urban Dictionary are “Out To Lunch,” “Overtime Loss,” “Over The Line” and “On The Lam.” Ever hear of any others?
Ley:
No, I haven’t actually (laughing).

Bob Ley, reporting from Russia for "Outside The Lines." (ESPN photo)

Bob Ley, reporting from Russia for “Outside The Lines.” (ESPN photo)

Q: Speaking of ’60 Minutes,’ ESPN president John Skipper referred to you recently as ‘the Walter Cronkite of sports journalism.’ We’ve thought of you more as a Mike Wallace, one who’s not just in the host chair but also out in the field, asking the questions, making the subjects squirm sometimes. Do those comparisons fit well with you?
Ley:
When I saw John’s comment, I was blown away, that was very kind and generous. I grew up watching Walter and I remember him on the Kennedy assassination and watching that. You borrow from everybody. There’s Jim McKay at Munich, someone asleep in his hotel room and did 30 hours wearing a swimsuit behind the desk and wasn’t the principal anchor for that Olympics. As a host, you look at what Brent Musburger did in the studio at CBS (for the NFL) – unparalleled command of that. You observe to see what makes them good.
russell-bakers-quotes-1There’s a cousin of mine, Russell Baker, late of the New York Times who wrote ‘Growing Up,’ and his book is essentially the story of our family. One of the principle characters in that book is Aunt Pat and Uncle Allen, who are my grandparents – my mom’s parents. The elegance of Russ’ writing is something at an early age left a great impression on me.
On TV, writing doesn’t lend itself to more than 25 second bursts but within that at least you can try to use the language that we have and at the same time allow the people at home to follow you and not write over their heads. Along the way, there are a lot of people who impress you and I’ve been allowed to adapt my style to incorporate that quality.

Q: The bottom line is you have to sell yourself to the audience for who you are, not someone you’re trying to pretend to imitate. Do some sportscasters try too hard to be like people they admire?
Ley:
Tell you what, the camera really reveals. When you’re on the air a lot, covering anything, you’re on the air for three or four hours, people will see you. The questions you formulate. The reactions. The follow-ups. You can’t play act. Your education, your training, your instinct comes out. I can’t imagine being a poser. That takes a lot of energy. And if you as yourself is OK, you’ll be fine. In our line of work, in news and sports news, there are entities who try to make the host bigger than the story. That may work from time to time, but the vertical pronoun is used sparingly. The story is the story. If you remember that and your interview subjects resonate, you will be a success, but it doesn’t have to be all about you.
Screen-shot-2013-04-03-at-12.07.05-PMThe best questions are often those that are the most simple. Like Sunday, we have a piece from John Barr updating former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. It’s also in the OTL anniversary show. It’s very emotional. Mike is very contrite and near tears describing the impact his firing had on his family and those actions (his abuse directed at players that was videotaped) will define him. So in the Sunday piece, which is a little longer, will include a one-on-one I taped recently with Eric Murdoch, who was the whistleblower — he took the tapes initially to Rutgers, was fired by Rice. So we played all the things Rice told us for Murdoch to watch. We go back and forth on the story, his dispute about some things that happened with Rice, and I have the last question. And I said, ‘Eric, I’ll ask you again, does Mike Rice sound sincere with his contrition? Is he sincere?’ It’s a simple question. And I formulated it as a closed question – a yes or no answer. But there’s like a three-second pause. So if you’re a viewer and you watch that interview from head to toe, wow, that he has to think about it is a revelatory moment. So it’s not necessarily getting someone to cop to the Lindberg baby kidnapping, once you set the table …

Q: In going back to that Cronkite analogy, if you’re looking at what you do on OTL versus a typical ESPN “SportsCenter” show, no is really like Cronkite there. They’ve used that show as a place give anchors a little more personality, get a little more cute. Is there a place for a “Cronkite” type of person to be on a “SportsCenter” desk now a days, or is it just best to keep that kind “reporting style” in the OTL framework?
Ley:
When things of a really heavy nature break, they’ll ask me to be involved with ‘SportsCenter,’ like an Aaron Hernandez verdict, when the FIFA thing came down recently, which was truly a global story. When the Ray Rice thing blew up, I did a whole segment on ‘NFL Countdown’ on a Sunday morning. That’s part my job to assist on those stories, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other qualified people who can do it. They appreciate what we’ve done on ‘Outside The Lines’ and I can help them.
‘SportsCenter’ is a national institution. The A-1 brand driving ESPN. What it has become in American culture — our network doesn’t have viewers, it has fans, and that’s primarily because of ‘SportsCenter.’ But there are times to get serious on ‘SportsCenter’ and times it doesn’t need to be.

Q: Do you feel sometimes like the guy who gets the call out of the bullpen to only do the serious things on ‘SportsCenter’ because of this reputation you’ve built?
Ley:
I wouldn’t call it the bullpen necessarily, but, yeah, perhaps. But that’s fine. Again, ‘SportsCenter’ competes in a context of ratings and distribution that is so much more evolved and complex than how we did years ago. You’re not going to turn on ‘SportsCenter’ to see a long treatment of Pete Rose’s gambling or the Hope Solo domestic violence or any of the stories we’ve broken or had the day after. You now tune in ‘SportsCenter’ with a certain expectation. It’s unfair to say ‘They’re not doing the heavy lifting.’ Yes, they will. And very well. And sometimes I’m involved and it doesn’t make a difference if I’m not involved. But OTL, we have the mission and time and space to do it.

Q: Do you miss the days when you did ‘SportsCenter’ and could be a little more, what would it be, jovial? Putting the ‘E’ in entertainment that ESPN has? Joke with co-anchor and all that?
Ley:
It is fun, doing the highlights and some of the segments, but it was something that time demands were just not in the cards.

Q: The most impactful story you’ve done on OTL might not be the one the audience remembers most. What could that be? Maybe it’s not something that would even be in the upcoming special, but was special to you.
Ley:
Actually, I have a number of them. But in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, we did a show that I think was 1998 on gay athletes. I went to a very small town in Pennsylvania to talk to a kid in high school named Greg Congdon, who had come out. This is the kind of rural area where they close the schools for the beginning of deer season. It was difficult for his father to accept it. Imagine the courage it took for him to speak to us. It was remarkable. You think about how long ago that was. He’s now an activist living in New York. It’s just one story and how many kids are like that now around the country, some 18 years later? Small and large. That one stays with me. That really does.

Q: A month ago when you were covering the Sepp Blatter resignation, and ESPN announced it gave you a contract extension, how did those two things align for you personally and professionally? It was interesting how they both put you in the spotlight at the same time.
Ley:
We agreed to terms months before that. It was a matter of finalizing it all. The toughest part to re-signing was not the negotiation, it was our decision at home to keep doing it. I just turned 60, already invested 35 years of my life. Our job is to make it look easy but I guarantee you it doesn’t get easier. It’s grueling and takes a toll on a regular basis. It expends energy and it’s a lifestyle decision. The bottom line: I enjoy the challenge, the people, the work, we’re having a good time, it’s worth continuing. That day when Blatter resigned, I was going to be out of town for about a week. We thought we’d announce it on a Tuesday, since I was already going to be there. Then I walk into work and see meetings moved back and all this news breaks, and it’s an absolute coincidence that Blatter resigned on the predetermined day we were going to announce it. And no, I don’t know tomorrow’s lottery numbers.

The way is was, when it all started in 1990 (ESPN photo)

The way is was, when it all started in 1990 (ESPN photo)

Q: When you decide about the next period of your life, do you need new challenges? You’re not too comfortable? As news evolves, does that keep drawing you in?
Ley:
Absolutely. Just doing what we’re doing is plenty of a challenge. My involvement in soccer is still large. We’re going to be very aggressive in covering the World Cups in Russia and Qatar even if we won’t actually telecast it. There’s enough to keep us busy. We want our show to keep evolving. That’s in our DNA. The network is like a shark, always moving. If you’re not trying to improve your show and standing, your time on the network will be very short because the entire culture is about, ‘How do we make this better?’ Constantly. Our toughest competitors are internally and that’s how we’re judged.

== More to read:
= Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch has an hour-long podcast with Ley recently where they discuss the timing of the Hope Solo domestic violence case just before the Women’s World Cup, the moving time slots that “OTL” has had over the years, his passion for sports journalism versus turning cynical, what other event he’d love to cover someday in a dream scenario.
= A Q-and-A with Ley by AwfulAnnouncing.com’s Matt Yoder from a month ago that gets more into the FIFA reporting on Sepp Blatter’s resignation.

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