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Pioneers of ESPN visit Bradley for Steiner Symposium

Photo by Lee Lard

Three men walk into a ballroom – an author and two sports commentators with six Emmy awards combined. This isn’t the setup of a joke, it’s the panel of speakers hosted by the Department of Communication’s 2022 Steiner Symposium. 

The Steiner Symposium was an all-day event on Nov. 15 where students of all majors could attend panels on topics such as Title IX, Athletes and Mental Health, Inclusion and Diversity and Sports Entrepreneurship. Finishing the day was a conversation with Bob Ley and Charley Steiner, moderated by Jim Miller.

The name Charley Steiner may ring a bell as Bradley has the Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication –the first named sports communication school in the country. Steiner spent 14 years anchoring SportsCenter at ESPN and has been an announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2005.

Ley, Steiner’s colleague and friend, has been honored as one of the 19 “ESPN Originals” since he had been with the company since its conception in 1979 before his retirement in 2019. 

Moderator Jim Miller was also a friend to both, as he had met them during the writing of his book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.”

Miller opened the conversation on the beginnings of ESPN. Ley jumped on the question and began recalling his 1979 interview. He had been offered a cable television job in New Jersey the very same week, but decided on ESPN because of the lack of corporate oversight, wanting to build something from scratch. Steiner’s path to television was quite different; he graduated from Bradley with the intention of going into radio.

He got the interview for ESPN completely by accident –from a passing conversation between Steve Bornstein and “Larry the liquor guy,” who Steiner jokingly credits with jump-starting his career. Jokes were a dime a dozen from the three all throughout the talk.

After discussing the early years, Miller brought up the 1989 World Series. The infamous Oct. 17, 1989, game was postponed due to the strike of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake which cut the power to the stadium. 

“It lasted long enough to start a Hail Mary but not long enough to finish one,” Ley said.

ESPN’s truck was the only one with a generator, so 18 minutes after the earthquake, Ley was on the air.

“We were just moving . . . Everyone knew they had a job to do,” he added

They produced the first national pictures of the earthquake, which they later learned had killed 66 people. An anecdote from Ley, which caught the breath of several in the audience, was how every crew member strategically passed behind him on air in order to reassure their families that they were safe. 

Miller continued to lead the audience through the history of ESPN and Steiner and Ley’s respective roles and paths alongside that history. Interestingly enough, politics influenced the decisions of both men in different ways.

Steiner left the company in 2002 and said that covering the first baseball games post 9/11 had motivated him to move on. He took a job with the Yankees, moving to the Dodgers three years later.

Ley cites the 2016 election as a major factor in his departure. After the crossover of sports and politics, such as Donald Trump calling out NFL players and the Social Equity Movement, Ley took what was supposed to be a sabbatical in 2018, but decided to officially retire in 2019. 

For the last several minutes, audience members asked questions ranging from opinions on current political happenings to advice for the future of sports coverage. 

Steiner and Ley both said that the best advice they could give was to learn to write a good story and to make yourself indispensable. 

“Writing, to me, is the key,” Steiner said.

This panel was well-received by audiences, with lots of laughs and enthusiastic applause. The line to meet these ESPN legends after the panel was out the door. 

“It was really interesting to learn about the early days of ESPN and SportsCenter, especially as someone who wants to go into baseball broadcasting, to kind of hear about the beginning of an empire,” sophomore sports communication major Meagan Ruger said.

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