There are many similarities between political reporting and sports reporting, says Bob Ley, host of ESPN’s recently relaunched news and debate show “Outside the Lines.”
On the latest episode of “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast,” Ley said, “the commissioner of the NFL certainly is better known than all but a handful of American politicians…and probably has more authority than all but a handful.”
And whether the topic is athlete concussions, drug policies, or off-the-field criminal activity, Ley says that his responsibility is to cover sports with the same skepticism as a reporter covering crime, business or politics. Of a recent press conference with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Ley said, “Every utterance, every pass on a question, I mean, this is important.”
Chuck chimed in, “You guys cover Goodell the way we cover Trump, sometimes.”
But obviously, there is a difference between the NFL and the White House.
“You’re talking about people who possess the nuclear codes,” Ley said.
In recent months it has seemed as though the worlds of sports and politics have bled together, with athletes like quarterback Colin Kaepernick making political stances on the playing field. But outspoken athletes have been a part of the sports scene for decades. Muhammad Ali’s activism, for example, was central to his public persona.
“There is this push-pull,” when it comes to covering athletes with public political viewpoints, Ley said. How people view the role of politics within the otherwise “It’s along class lines. It’s along geographic lines. It’s along racial lines and caught in the middle is the sporting Colossus industry.”
A big part of that sports industry is ESPN, which has recently been stricken by financial trouble and changing viewing habits that have lead to layoffs of some of the network’s public correspondents. The network’s longest serving commentator, Ley said his daughters don’t even subscribe to cable and choose to get their news in other ways.
“We’ve been forced to reinvent ourselves,” Ley said, insisting that at his network, an innovative and creative institution, “that’s not something new.”
“I’m a sixty-two year old white guy sitting here in the suburbs. How I consume is different than how college students, the classmates my kids went to school with in New York or Ohio,” Ley said. “We’ve adapted. We’re attempting to adapt. We’re doing a very aggressive job.”
But Ley, who has been with the network since its founding in 1979, called some of these changes “painful.” He delivered a message to his now former colleagues on the day their firings were announced on his show, “Outside the Lines:” “Today is that time to reflect on what they have contributed through our years to our many platforms, what they brought to you…That’s what I’m going to be doing, and I think they would appreciate it if you did the same. Think of them.”'
Beyond the changes to technology, the future of sports – and sports coverage – may very well be centered on soccer, Ley and Todd agree.
It’s possible that soccer has already surpassed hockey as the most popular sport in America. “If one of your two languages at home is Spanish, it’s not even a question,” Ley said.
Todd agreed, noting that news coverage on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC were preempted by Premier League sports in recent weeks.
“[Former Meet the Press moderator] Lawrence Spivak would be rolling over in his grave,” Todd joked.