Bob Ley took a sabbatical from ESPN to “re-charge,” and one of the ways he’s doing that is by connecting with students at his alma mater.
After teaching two master classes at Seton Hall, the award-winning host of “Outside the Lines” will deliver the university’s commencement address Monday at the Prudential Center. The 64-year-old Bloomfield, New Jersey native, who graduated from the Hall in 1976, has served as the de facto conscience of sports for many years. But he won’t be delivering doom-and-gloom to the graduates.
In fact, these fast-changing, polarized times look pretty familiar to him.
“Every time I start to feel like telling people to get off my digital lawn, I just remember what it was like to be that age, with the world in front of you,” Ley said via phone. “When I graduated we had just come through Vietnam, people screaming at each other in the streets and at the dinner table. Nixon had resigned. We were all thinking, ‘My God, what the heck is going to happen next? What happened was the '80s and great (economic) expansion and the tech revolution.”
ESPN's Bob Ley (left) talks with a Seton Hall student while on campus to teach a master class earlier this school year. (Photo: Seton Hall University)
He added, “As dark and as binary as everything seems, I would love to be 22 coming out of school with the world at my feet.”
Ley certainly knows a thing or two about advances in technology. After cutting his teeth at WSOU, Seton Hall’s student-run radio station, he joined ESPN at the network’s 1979 launch. At the time, more than a few folks scoffed at the idea of a 24-hour channel devoted to sports. Embracing change is a message he conveyed at one-day master classes on "Sports Journalism and Its Challenges" that he taught in South Orange in November and February.
“Anybody who tells you what any industry is going to look like five years from now is full of it,” Ley said.
“What does tech allow you to do?” he said. “You can go as far as your talents will take you.”
Bob Ley during his WSOU days at Seton Hall. He went on to acclaim at ESPN. (Photo: Seton Hall University Archives)
To stand out in what he calls “the digital democracy,” he recommends “humanizing” stories.
“We’ve been telling stories as a species since we gathered around the campfire in loin cloths,” Ley said. “Telling good stories will always attract people to you and your voice. You might have this marvelously complex topic and what we’ve tried to do over the years (on Outside the Lines) is find the micro example that illustrates the bigger issue and flesh it out.”
Surprisingly, Ley has given just one other commencement speech, at Hartford in 2008.
“It’s a very humbling invitation,” he said. “You want to say something that’s meaningful and has value, but you don’t want to sit there and wag your finger and pontificate. I hope I’ll be able to offer some useful advice.”
Ley said he plans on speaking for “about 12-15 minutes” and will draw on his personal story as a first-generation college graduate who literally walked the same pathways as many Seton Hall students. Many of the friendships he formed in college proved to be lifelong.
“There is a rich sense of community and family at that school and I hope that is what continues to draw people to it,” he said.
Ley’s sabbatical from ESPN, which began in October, was supposed to last six months. He recently extended it indefinitely. Although he doesn’t see himself teaching full-time, he’s enjoyed the master classes and is open to doing more. What else has he been up to?
“Eating and sleeping normally, exercising, spending time with my grandkids, doing a little traveling,” he said. “It’s been great. The company has been magnificent about it and we’ll see what happens.”
ESPN's Bob Ley speaks at a master class for Seton Hall University students. (Photo: Seton Hall University)
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