There was a time when ESPN was a destination for every sports reporter. Bristol, Connecticut is where you had to be if you had a passion for telling insightful, impactful, and investigative stories about athletes and the games they play.
ESPN gobbled up the top reporting minds and columnists across the country as it built its brand as The Worldwide Leader in Sports. It made journalists rock stars and it made them wealthier than they ever dreamed possible. Some former newspaper scribes like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless eventually got out of journalism altogether. But you still got the sense that ESPN cared about and heavily invested in reporting.
No show embodied that belief more than Outside The Lines. Anchored for many years by Bob Ley and later Jeremy Schaap, OTL has been an important part of the network since 1990. At its peak, the enterprise journalism show ran daily episodes from 2003-19 and had a Sunday-specific show from 2001-17. However, over the years, we’ve watched Outside The Lines endure a long, slow death. It was being deemphasized, getting pushed further into the background.
So, no one was surprised when John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that the standalone show has been canceled. According to Ourand, OTL will still exist but will be featured in other shows and platforms. ESPN will undoubtedly spin this as a positive and probably assert that this move will give the Outside The Lines brand exposure to a wider audience. Perhaps. Still, it makes you wonder about the future of journalism at ESPN.
Our interview with @MeyersLeonard, the former Portland and Miami center who is hoping to return to the NBA. Nearly two years ago, he used an antisemitic slur while playing Call of Duty on Twitch. A warning–this story includes offensive language. pic.twitter.com/rWmt48Y8ID— Jeremy Schaap (@JeremySchaap) February 1, 2023
As noted many times, the E in ESPN stands for entertainment. It’s in the business of sports programming. Because of its partnerships with so many leagues, inherent conflicts of interest exist. You could sometimes question ESPN’s coverage and what it chooses to report and not report. But Outside The Lines had gravitas no other show on the network could match.
Ley and Schaap are synonymous with credibility. These are reputations built over decades. When you saw their faces on Outside The Lines, their presence signaled to the audience that there was something important going on. That ESPN was taking the subject seriously. You cannot underestimate how valuable that is.
Most of ESPN’s programming revolves around the joy of sports. But there are also times when darker, more troubling aspects must be addressed. You can’t simply talk about the games if one of the participants has been accused, arrested, charged, or convicted of a felony. You can’t simply show the glory of victory and not look at the price that an athlete’s body often pays.
Outside The Lines did exceptional journalism in this unfortunate arena. It examined difficult-to-report topics like concussions, hazing, and sexual abuse. It raised uncomfortable questions that needed to be asked. Questions that many of ESPN’s league partners probably would rather not answer. Outside The Lines spoke truth to power in a way few shows could. That’s its legacy. Every OTL host, reporter, producer, cameraperson, technical assistant, etc. should be proud.
It’s a shame that ESPN didn’t value one of its greatest achievements. We know this because of how the show was treated, moving it from ESPN to ESPN2 in 2013, repeatedly messing with its time slot. For far too long, ESPN acted as if Outside The Lines was something to be tolerated rather than cherished.
ESPN says it’s committed to journalism. Last week, it announced new and re-signed reporters for its Enterprise Journalism Unit. E60 remains, and ESPN makes arguably the best sports documentaries. But there was nothing quite like Outside The Lines.
The show deserved a better fate. And for those who care about journalism, this change is unwelcome.