ESPN gets a lot of grief for their high volume programming like First Take, The Herd, or other daily shoutfests or their obsessive nature in driving certain stories not just into the ground, but towards the outer core of Earth's center. This grief is rightfully earned.
The opposite of this programming is Outside the Lines and the reporting of Bob Ley.
Ley has been with ESPN since its inception in 1979 and remains the foundation of the best of what ESPN does. As a brand, Outside the Lines has strengthened as it has aged. Shows like Outside the Lines, E:60, and 30 for 30 are inherently as far as you can get from the more tawdry aspects of ESPN's empire. What you often get is well-reported, well-informed, smart, meaningful information and commentary. What you don't get is I Heart @RealSkipBayless t-shirts.
Over the weekend, I was particularly interested in Bob Ley's report from Brazil on questions leading up to the 2014 World Cup. Some time ago, Ley had tweeted photos from Rio's favelas teasing the eventual report. Knowing the high quality of Ley's work and OTL, I was looking forward to the piece and it didn't disappoint. From Rio's favelas to talking with Brazilian journalists and local professors, to standing inside the massive Maracana with construction underway, it is a fascinating look inside WC 2014's planning and Brazilian culture.
The situation is reminiscent of the questions that faced South Africa and whether or not they would be ready in time for the 2010 World Cup. Brazil will hope to duplicate the hosting job of South Africa, where they became the first African nation to host a World Cup and did so successfully. However, much of the issues observed by Ley in Brazil are present in South Africa.
I had the chance to see this first hand during a trip to South Africa in August 2010 after the World Cup had concluded. I spent some time in Johannesburg and Soweto, the township where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu called home. South Africa is still very much emerging as a young democracy and dealing with the history of apartheid and present problems of poverty and unemployment. South Africa also has extreme income inequality with the very rich and the very poor.
Soccer City Stadium, which hosted the World Cup Final, sits in Soweto. It is the most beautiful stadium and one of the most beautiful structures I've seen. Its size and scope is impressive. A few minutes away from the stadium stood a five star hotel and a shopping center. Within a stone's throw of that stood some of the most abject poverty in the city, with shacks built closely to one another and port-a-potties dotting the dirt roads. All these elements of the culture lived in close proximity to one another. The juxtaposition of this country after the World Cup was stunning to see first-hand and the OTL feature in Brazil brought back a lot of those images and memories.
In the big picture, Ley's story from Brazil are why programs like OTL are such an asset to ESPN. They not only highlight the importance of sports, but the link from sports to the greater society. In light of this piece, it would be great to see Ley and ESPN go back to South Africa and see the lasting impact of the World Cup, do more follow ups in Brazil looking to 2014, or even do more highlight pieces like this closer to home. The more ESPN can focus on excellent features like this from around the globe, the better they can live up to that tilte of worldwide leader in sports.