“He’s practically an original at the worldwide leader in sports,” Rich Eisen said on his radio show last year, welcoming on former ESPN colleague Bob Ley, before wondering aloud when exactly “The General” started in Bristol, Conn.
“Actually if you’re scoring at home … Day 3, 1979,” Ley responded. “Rather biblical.”
It’s easy to get a little mystical when describing Ley’s time at ESPN. Following his retirement announcement on Wednesday, Scott Van Pelt called him “the soul of our shop.” Chris Berman said Ley was “ESPN’s North Star.” He is, as Jay Bilas put it, “the conscience of sports journalism.”
Over 40 years at the network, Ley hosted coverage of everything from March Madness and the NFL Draft to Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement and the 9/11 attacks. He was the voice of the company, and a voice of reason behind the scenes. Ley eventually found a home leading Outside The Lines, deftly mixing humility, humor, and hard facts, just like he did with Eisen.
If Mark Twain’s motto was “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Ley’s retort would be, let’s have both, please.
There are several reasons why we’ll never see another Bob Ley. Participating in an SI roundtable two days before retiring, the 64-year-old offered the first while delivering advice to young journalists. “The pie has so many more pieces now,” he said. “You won’t be sitting here for 40 years doing your thing … for the same company.” In a world of individual brands, no one is likely to become as associated with a news institution again.
ESPN’s place in the sports landscape has changed too, from an upstart outsider to a heavyweight so enmeshed with leagues that Ley regularly was asked about the company’s ability to continue providing independent, investigative coverage. “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,” Ley told The New York Times, one more time.
Plus, no network will have the primacy ESPN boasted at its peak. When the next world-stopping bit of sports news breaks, we won’t all tune in to hear the same voice. There will never be another singular conscience for the sports industry. There can’t be.
Lastly, there’s Ley himself. The uniform praise he received Wednesday was just the latest proof of how unique his on and off-camera skills are, with everyone from Dick Vitale to Bomani Jones crediting him with their success.
A morphed network, a new media ecosystem, a unique man—all reasons why there won’t be another Bob Ley, with each factor contributing to the nostalgia inherent in all of the admiration he’s received. Ley “always kept us going in the right direction,” Berman said. So now what?
“(Ley’s) unwavering commitment and unparalleled work ethic drove our journalistic ambitions,” ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement. “The best way we can thank Bob for what he’s meant to ESPN and to sports fans is to continue to uphold the journalistic integrity and principle he’s instilled in ESPN for nearly 40 years.”
Specifically, that means Jeremy Schaap and Ryan Smith will largely handle OTL, according to a statement from ESPN exec Norby Williamson. But for how the entire company—and sports media as a whole—changes without Ley in the picture? No one can say. We haven’t seen it since Day 2, 1979.