It is nearly impossible to imagine an ESPN without Bob Ley.
His first day of work was on the network’s first weekend, in 1979, and he was the face of many of its most important broadcasts. But starting next week, ESPN will have to learn how to do without the man Chris Berman once called “our conscience.”
Ley, 64, announced today that he will retire at the end of the month. “Thank you for a great run,” he wrote on Twitter.
In a telephone interview, Ley said he had been thinking about retirement when he started a nine-month sabbatical in September, and that it had showed him that “civilian life” could be pretty good. He informed ESPN about his decision to retire this month.
“You sleep better hours, you eat more sensibly, your life is not overrun by constant deadlines,” he said.
Ley started at ESPN in 1979 as a “SportsCenter” anchor, hosting the network’s signature show thousands of times alongside people like George Grande and the late Tom Mees. Ley was the studio host for six World Cups, and since 1990, the host of ESPN’s investigative newsmagazine show, “Outside the Lines.”
ESPN said Jeremy Schaap and Ryan Smith will take over Ley’s “Outside the Lines” duties. He returned to the show Wednesday in the unusual role of a guest on “Outside the Lines,” dedicated to his career.
Ley was known as “The General” in ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters, so much so that he said it was once referenced in a letter of agreement for a new contract.
Still, in many ways Ley was an anomaly at ESPN. At a network dominated by football and basketball, Ley’s first love was soccer, having been a public address announcer for the original New York Cosmos.
Although “SportsCenter” anchors like Keith Olbermann and the late Stuart Scott were known for their wordplay, catchphrases and energy, Ley usually played the straight man. He was a forceful proponent of diversity at ESPN, bringing outside voices onto “Outside the Lines” and reporting numerous stories on the intersection of sports, labor, health, politics and race.
Whenever ESPN needed to cover hard news, Ley was the first choice. He led the network’s coverage of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive, Muhammad Ali’s death and its first broadcasts from Cuba. When the Clinton White House approached ESPN about doing a town hall on sports and race in 1998, Ley was naturally the host.
Ley has evolved as a broadcaster over his career. He ditched the tie, grew a beard and hesitatingly began sharing his opinion with viewers. Covering the FIFA presidential selection in 2015, Ley memorably ripped up his paper agenda and declared, “For those who say it is a base canard and unfair that FIFA makes it up as they go along, they are making it up as they go along, right in front of our face.”
In recent years, however, the ground underneath Ley’s feet has shifted. Stories about race, politics and health that once would have been covered exclusively by “Outside the Lines” have flourished across the network, though not always without consternation from viewers. As a result, “Outside the Lines” now sometimes features straight sports segments that just as easily could have appeared on “SportsCenter” or “First Take.”
Under Jimmy Pitaro, who became ESPN’s president last year, the company has worked to repair its relationship with the NFL, whose games it pays billions to broadcast. That relationship was damaged, in part, by the coverage Ley and others gave to vexing issues like concussions and protests during the national anthem.
Although ESPN insists its reporting is as tough as ever, many of ESPN’s strongest voices on issues of politics and race have either left the network or seen their roles reduced. The print edition of ESPN: The Magazine has ended, and the company no longer sponsors sportswriting’s most prestigious award.
In his statement and the interview, Ley rejected the notion that the decision to retire was made by anybody but himself, or that ESPN won’t continue its tough reporting on league partners.
“I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive that a rights holder would express concerns about things — if they do — and you would continue reporting on it,” he said.
While he was off the air, Ley missed reporting on plenty of stories. Ley pointed to the continued coverage of Larry Nasser and Michigan State, as well as the announcement that Tom Seaver has dementia, as two he would have liked to have been in the anchor chair for.
But Ley, a history buff, dispensed with any notion that ESPN might need him by referencing something Charles de Gaulle supposedly said: “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”
“It’s funny, and profound at the same time,” Ley said.
In his retirement, he expects to continue working with Seton Hall, his alma mater, and spend time with his family, especially his grandchildren. Whether he will do anything high profile he doesn’t yet know, or won’t say.
“I have some ideas, but they’re kind of formulating in my fevered brow,” he said.