Investigative journalism has been in decline for the last quarter century, but ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” has stubbornly bucked the trend.
The award-winning show celebrates its 25th anniversary on Tuesday with a primetime special at 7 p.m. ET hosted by Bob Ley, who has been with the show since Day 1 and with ESPN itself since the network’s Day 3.
The fact that such a serious approach to sports news has survived for so long is what continues to impress fans. As Jeremy Schaap, a producer since 1993 and occasional host of the show, told TheWrap on Monday, “There are a lot of easier ways to get people to tune in, and less expensive ways.”
“In some ways, ‘OTL’ has benefited from some of the hard times in the newspaper industry, in the sense that we’ve been able to hire away from newspapers so many great, serious journalists who maybe in a previous generation would have felt more secure staying in print,” Schaap added.
The anniversary show features John Barr’s recent interview with now-disgraced former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice; an update on Tom Farrey’s September 2012 piece on former Pop Warner football standout Donnovan Hill, who suffered a spinal fracture while making the type of head-first tackle he says was encouraged by his youth coaches.
The show will also recap “OTL’s” historic coverage of football concussions with Mark Fainaru-Wada; a piece about race in sports and an in-studio interview with ESPN commentator and “Pardon the Interruption” co-host Michael Wilbon; and a look at the show’s coverage of sexual assaults through the years.
Finally, Ley and the crew will share memorable moments from the past 25 years of “Outside the Lines.”
Schaap, who still occasionally fills in on “OTL” despite heavy involvement on his own series, “E:60,” offered a string of praise for Ley, whom he called “funny,” “eclectic,” “terrific,” “so gifted” and “a real workaholic.”
“I hope I could be as committed to the journalism project at ESPN as he is for as long as he’s been,” Schaap said.
Schaap, the son of legendary sportswriter and broadcaster Dick Schaap, seems to be cut from the same cloth. He was anchoring when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred and when news broke that Rice had thrown basketballs at players, kicked them and used homophobic slurs.
On “OTL,” Schaap said his favorite piece was a two-part series about pro baseball player turned convict Willie Mays Aikens that helped shed light on the prison system’s overpopulation problem, particularly when it comes to drug crimes.
Aikens eventually was released earlier than his initial sentence suggested was possible.
Schaap sees the network’s commitment to “Outside the Lines” and investigative journalism in general as merely the beginning. “There is reason to believe that ‘OTL’ will be as strong in its second quarter-century as it was in its first,” Schaap said.