Although “SportsCenter” anchors like Keith Olbermann and 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 H.I.V. 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 feverishly to repair its relationship with the N.F.L., 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.