Like any journalist worth their salt, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap chases stories for a living. So it only makes sense that he launches into a story at the top of our Zoom conversation.
“I did a story about a fight club in Menlo Park like 15 years ago,” Schaap explains after examining the wall art in the back of my workspace.
“They had all kinds of horns and cross swords and stuff like that. I was like, “Oh my God, there’s a fight club back there?”
My ears perking up at the location, I ask if it was a Silicon Valley thing.
“It was a Silicon Valley fight club,” he explains.
“One of my all time favorite stories. These guys were bananas. I mean, they were totally bananas. I couldn’t believe I was in this place. I think it was their garage and they were hitting each other with sticks, and it was awful. It was awful.”
I ask if they were trying to relive the movie.
“Yeah. That was it,” Schaap says. “Except they were talking about it.”
Jeremy Schaap’s career at ESPN
I’m on a call with Schaap to talk about his career chasing stories.
Specifically, his favorite E60 stories, the Emmy Award-winning investigative newsmagazine that he’s been shepherding into the sports cultural zeitgeist since 2007.
Many of those E60 features from over the years are now available to watch on ESPN+.
Jeremy Schaap’s family trade is the sports media business. He’s the son of accomplished sportswriter and broadcaster Dick Schaap, perhaps best known as the host of ESPN’s former Sunday morning panel show, The Sports Reporters. In addition to decades of sportswriting in New York City papers, Schaap helped NFL legends like Joe Montana, Jerry Kramer, Joe Namath, and Bo Jackson write their memoirs.
Jeremy landed at the Worldwide Leader in 1993. He worked on Outside the Lines with Bob Ley for decades, taking the franchise over when Ley retired in 2019.
Schaap’s “bailiwick” – to borrow his own word – remains sports stories with substance.
“There are always some people who are like, ‘Well, why don’t we just get scores?’ Or, ‘Why don’t we just get highlights?’ And they’re not coming to ESPN for the serious side of sports,” he says. “But many people are, and we’ve been giving it to them, the serious side of sports, for more than 30 years.”
“Without a doubt, I think Outside the Lines has always covered the most serious issues in sports fearlessly and relentlessly. And I think we’ve never had more serious stories to cover than in the last several years,” he adds.
Schaap shares the hosting role on E60 with Lisa Salters. In May 2022, the franchise won its 19th Sports Emmy for Alive: The Drew Robinson Story.
“I’m just lucky, right?”, Schaap asks. “I went to work at a place ESPN, in 1993, that was on this incredible trajectory. I’ve been able to ride this wave, doing these stories and it’s just never stopped.”
Jeremy Schaap on the ESPN E60 origin story
I asked Schaap about the origins of the E60 franchise at ESPN.
“In 2007, as I remember, John Skipper was really behind the show and John Walsh and Bob Wallace. They brought in Andy Tennant, who at the time was at ESPN Original Entertainment, with whom I had worked, when he was a featured producer, to build this show around narrative journalistic storytelling – whatever that means, it sounds like jargon,” he laughs.
The network’s appetite for thoughtful, impactful sports journalism helped crystallize the vision for E60.
“From the beginning, the idea was to do a show with the best production values, the best storytelling, the best visuals, the most interesting subject – all the things that you could want to be a 60 Minutes for sports before there was a 60 Minutes for sports,” Schaap explains.
“OTL had its space, what it was doing every day at that point, or six out of seven days a week. And this was going to be… This was different. Certainly journalism – serious journalism was part of its DNA from the beginning, but it was also profiles, it was also interviews,” Schaap says.
It aligned perfectly with his own career ambitions and interests as a storyteller.
“I grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent. And so to me, to get that opportunity to do these stories around the world about the intersection of society and sports globally was just… It’s a cliche, but it was a dream come true.”
Following those foreign correspondent instincts, Schaap’s first E60 piece was seasoned with a Hemingway-esque flavor. Except it wasn’t pure Sun Also Rises romanticism – the piece was gut-wrenching and tragic, showcasing the brutally raw side of modern bullfighting.
“The very first piece I think I did that first show was about a young bullfighter from Spain who had been seriously gored a few times. He was too young to compete in Spain, but he was allowed to compete even at 15. I could have it wrong, maybe he was 16, but I think it was 15 in Mexico and some other places,” he recalls.
“The idea was always, if it’s a good story, go do it.”
Thanks to that guiding principle, there’s an exhaustive breadth of subjects in the E60 canon. In addition to impactful, thought-provoking investigations that speak truth to power, there are profiles on athletes like Mets first basemen Pete Alonso or the late, great Mike Leach.
There are also deep dive retrospectives on timeless moments in sports history, like Stanford’s infamous “The Band is on the Field” incident aka The Play, Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, or the 1972 Miami Dophins perfect season.
“I love sports history. I’m laughed at around ESPN for loving sports history so much and being more of the sports history maven than perhaps the sports current maven,” Schaap says. “But I grew up in a house where Zack Wheat was a name I knew, where I idolized Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Jeremy Schaap shares his most memorable ESPN E60s
In our 40 minute conversation, I asked Schaap about both his favorite and most impactful ESPN E60s.
Bad phrasing on my part. When you tell stories for a living, those are two totally different things. So I’m framing it as Schaap’s most “memorable” ESPN E60 moments in his 15 years at the helm of the franchise.
The result is a library of required viewing for any serious sports fan, many of which can be found in the ESPN+ archive.
There’s a lot to choose from, as E60 has evolved quite a bit over the years. I also asked him how many episodes there are to choose from.
“I don’t know if I could count. I would have to guess it would be in the two to 300 range?” Schaap guesses. “The format has evolved over the years, from typical magazine show with three big pieces, maybe one smaller piece. Now it’s one hour show, single topic.”
Alas, some of Schaap’s most memorable ESPN E60 episodes, along with his notes, his own words…
E60 Drew Bledsoe Better With Age (2020)
Directed by Max Brodsky
Bledsoe: Max Brodsky
“We did an hour with Drew Bledsoe. That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
When we sat down with him, it’s been more than a decade since he’s retired from the NFL. It had been 15 years since he lost his job to Tom Brady.
He’d never talked about, as far as I can recall, in depth what that was like. He was the man and then he almost dies on the field.
He talked about that at length in a way that he hadn’t talked about before. And he talks about what it was like to lose his job that way. And then to watch the guy who took the job become the greatest quarterback of all time, who would win seven Super Bowls.
That’s a thing about the process that we’ve learned over the years: You’re often gonna get a better interview, or a more truthful, honest interview, after they are retired.”
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E60: The Great Imposter and Me (2022)
Directed by Russell Dinallo
“It’s about Barry Bremen. It’s a one hour show.
All right, so this guy used to sneak into sports events in the 1970s and ’80s.
But what else?
Well, it turns out he was a longterm sperm donor. And there are dozens and dozens of people out there now through 23andMe and other DNA sites who’ve identified him as their biological father.
The way the director put it all together, it raises questions about identity and parenthood.
I thought it was fantastic.
It’s one of my all-time favorites. I know many people enjoyed watching it. I think some people were moved by watching it. I think maybe some people took DNA tests, or some people who were going to take DNA tests, decided not to, whatever the case may be.”
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E60 Cheese Rolling Tradition in England (2009)
Directed by Yaron Deskalo
Back injuries. Broken ankles. Separated shoulders.
This cheese rolling competition is wild 😮 (via @E60) pic.twitter.com/CgU1OTLHt5
— ESPN (@espn) March 22, 2020
“When I think of well executed fun stuff again, maybe it had an impact. I think about cheese rolling. That was about, I wanna say it was like 2009, 2010. We went to this place a couple hours west of London. I think it’s Gloucestershire, Cooper’s Hill. They’ve been doing it for centuries, it’s like a Mayday ritual…
I was there. And that piece, it’s these little moments that stay with you and that one, the little moment is the organizer. I’m interviewing him, and I present him with this evidence that the guy who won the day before had false started repeatedly and we’re hamming it up. He’s like, “Who cares? It’s cheese rolling.”
I’ve got him dead to rights. It’s the little moments that make you happy, and the people. I got to the top of the hill, thinking, ‘maybe I’ll do this and put a helmet cam on.’
I got to the top of the hill, and I said, ‘No way. There is no way I am doing this…’
The video is… Two-dimensional video doesn’t do it justice. It is basically 90 degrees, you have to be so inebriated to even consider going down that hill.
To me, that’s one of our great pieces that people come back to. I don’t know if we can take the credit – there were several crews there. Ours was I think the big first thing in the US for it, it got so overcrowded the next year they had to cancel it.”
It went away for a few years because there had been so much media exposure, including our piece.
This tradition dating back hundreds of years, this rite of spring, we were at least partially responsible, I think, for interrupting it.”
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E60 The Children of Bhopal (2010)
Directed by Yaron Deskalo
“I can’t say nobody else would’ve done it, but there aren’t too many places that would’ve done a story about kids playing cricket on the grounds of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the site of the worst industrial disaster of all time.
The piece raised the right to play issues and the legacy of that disaster 30 years later.
Is that a sports story? No, it’s not a sports story. It’s a story, and maybe it’s tangentially related to sports, but we’re gonna tell it because it’s a compelling story and an important story.”
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E60 Fugitive Wanted (2009)
Directed by Yaron Deskalo
“The story about Serbian basketball player Miladin Kovacevic.
At Binghamton, he brutally assaults a fellow student in a bar. He escapes with the help of somebody at the Serbian Consulate in New York.
I went to Belgrade to do the story.”
**Editor’s note: The reporting on E60 Fugitive Wanted an Emmy for Sports Journalism. Kovacevic was brought justice. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
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E:60 Exclusive Report On Women In South Africa Before The World Cup (2010)
Directed by Beein Gim
“In 2010, this was a story that I really think changed everything for us in terms of the way we told these stories. The visuals, the stories, the interviews.
We did this before the World Cup in South Africa about this horrible thing. That story was still one of the things that sticks with me more than anything else.”
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E60 Qatar’s World Cup (2022)
Directed by Beein Gim
“The single journalism story that I think opened the most eyes is the story about Qatar and migrant workers that we did.
It was an important story, I think, that needed to be told. As I said, it did make an impact. I think it did reverberate and resonate. I think it helped shape the discourse about Qatar’s World Cup over the next eight years, as the event approached. Then we went back last year and revisited the story.
If I’m gonna identify a single story that made an impact, the ones I have worked on, it would be that story.”
**Editor’s note: The E60 on the Qatar World Cup won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism, a first for ESPN.
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E60 Sepp Blatter and FIFA (2015)
Directed by: Beein Gim and Mike Johns
Coming up on @espn at 130pET: an @E60 piece on Sepp Blatter & @Marcotti joins @BobLeyESPN to discuss the #FIFAcrisis pic.twitter.com/vPfNK8Ehlk
— Outside the Lines (@OTLonESPN) February 22, 2016
“Then the hour documentary we did, with Qatar as a starting point, on FIFA and corruption in FIFA in general, and homing in on Sepp Blatter the next year, that was also, I think, one of the most important things we’ve done as journalism, as storytelling, as a fully conceived look into the inner workings of FIFA.
And the timing. As I recall, it aired and then there were raids at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. This was right before the FIFA presidential election in the summer of 2015. Then Sepp Blatter was reelected, and then he was forced to resign.
We were right there on top of the FIFA story.”
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E:60 Ernie Johnson: My Story (2015)
Directed by: Dan Lindberg
“We did a profile of Ernie Johnson. Much of it focused on his relationship with his son Michael, who died in October 2021, and Ernie Johnson’s life, and what people didn’t know about him, who’d been watching him for so many years.
That was an important one. I think that was an impactful story in a different way, a story that moved people.
I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can be as good a person as Ernie Johnson and his wife, Cheryl.’ I don’t know, and do what they had done, to help another human being.
I know Ernie talks about the impact that story made in his life. It wasn’t anything I did. The Director Dan Lindberg did a tremendous job, as well as the producer, on that story. And all I had to do was ask Ernie the questions.
One thing you learn over the years is that you need your subjects in those kinds of stories, to be at a point where they want to tell their story.”
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E:60 The Survivor (2022)
Director: Frank Saraceno
It’s about Shaul Ladany. It is one of the most important stories we’ve told. About the Israeli Olympic race walker Shaul Ladany, who had survived the Holocaust as a child and was one of the Israelis who survived the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics.