Ley leaving a giant void at ESPN

Guest column

With the retirement of Bob Ley last week, ESPN lost an 11-time Sports Emmy Award winner, but Ley’s impact and legacy really have little to do with awards.

Ley was the all-sports network’s longest-tenured anchor. He made his “SportsCenter” debut on Sept. 9, 1979, the third day of the network’s operation, and crafted a firm professional on-air presence throughout his tenure.

He took a leave of absence last October, and then announced his retirement Wednesday.

Like Ley, 64, his statement was pitch perfect. He displayed the collegiality and professionalism that defined his career, stopped any potential speculation and provided a nifty little hint of more without giving too much away.

“To be clear, this is entirely my decision. I enjoy the best of health, and the many blessings of friends and family, and it is in that context that I’m making this change,” he said. “Through the decades, and my innumerable experiences at ESPN, I have built many deep and fulfilling friendships. You know who you are. I hope you also know how much you mean to me. We have shared an American story unlike any other. And we will continue to do so in the years ahead.

“I have been gifted by our viewers and consumers with a precious commodity — your trust. To be invited into your homes was a privilege I never took for granted. In September, I signed off my last show saying, ‘I’ll catch you on the flip side.’ Now it’s time to take that vinyl off the turntable (ask your folks), flip it over, and drop the needle on the B-side. There are always great cuts, and hidden gems on the B-side. Thank you for a great run.”

Through the years, anchors like Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and Stuart Scott got more mainstream attention for their work at ESPN, with catch phrases and pop culture success, but that was not Ley’s approach.

His grounded professional presence made him a mentor to almost every on-air talent that passed through ESPN the past four decades.

Best of all, he provided necessary consistency and gravitas to the network’s standout sports journalism efforts. He was deservedly lauded for his work on “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s investigative news program, and anchored coverage of almost every major breaking sports story during his tenure.

From the first live national reports about the earthquake during the 1989 World Series and Pete Rose’s indefinite suspension from Major League Baseball to reports about Nike sweatshops in Vietnam, the NFL’s handling of domestic violence cases and coverage of the deaths of Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer, Ley did it all. He had an affinity for the truth, soccer and valuable versatility.

He asked strong questions, displayed powerful reporting and invariably brought a balanced approach to storytelling that allowed viewers to know where he stood on an issue without hampering his credibility. He was a pro, driven first and foremost to serve viewers.

It was never about him, and that’s what made Ley so special.

He will be missed.

n What’s next for Ley? Sure, some time with his grandchildren, as he pointed out during an on-air interview four days ago. He’s not done working, though. His B-side seems mostly likely to focus on academics — some sort of role at his Seton Hall, his alma mater. Do not be surprised if the university bolsters its sports broadcasting/journalism program with Ley playing a visible role. He’ll bring credibility and an ability to attract dozens of former colleagues to campus. That also attracts students, especially to a school in the New York metro market.

n Ley’s departure leaves a huge void. While critics of ESPN’s journalism are petty and wrong, nobody at the network compares to him in that capacity. “Outside the Lines” was clearly his show. Without him, it was missing something. Experienced talents Jeremy Schaap and Ryan Smith will continue to front “OTL,” but they just seem a notch below. It was in part Ley’s demeanor and physical presence. He owns a studio set when he’s working. His success was also a testament to his approach (ever curious) and preparation (ever complete).

n Throughout his career Ley interviewed four U.S. Presidents: Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He also hosted a Town Hall with President Clinton on Race and Sports in 1998.

Tuner tidbits

n “Sunday Night Baseball” on ESPN airs at 10 a.m. this week. So it’s effectively “Sunday Morning Baseball.” It features the Red Sox and Yankees playing in London’s Olympic Stadium.

n Live coverage of Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest will air at noon Thursday on ESPN2.

n ESPN’s first-to-last-ball coverage of Wimbledon begins Monday.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.

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