More than a decade after ESPN canceled Playmakers, its first foray into scripted drama, those who remember the show fondly are still Monday-morning quarterbacking the decision. If the Watergate-era saying holds true—“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”—then ESPN should at least be praised for its transparency. The crime was shutting down Playmakers based not on its creative or commercial merits, but due to external pressure, and ESPN readily admitted it. The network could have exploited the thin sourcing typical of media reports about internal business decisions. Instead, ESPN copped to snuffing the show after fielding complaints from the NFL, who thought the show’s mostly-warts depiction of a professional football team would tarnish the league’s image. Time flies.
The Playmakers debacle reeks of irony given how dramatically the NFL’s spin control has been compromised in the period following the show’s November 2003 cancellation. Playmakers looks prescient now, having confronted professional football’s most controversial issues, issues that have since developed into the embarrassing scandals riling the NFL. The show did what it could to shield the NFL from blowback, with its central team, the Cougars, referring only to “the League” and giving no indication as to what city hosts it. But with its depictions of recreational drug abuse, doping, gun possession, intimate partner violence, closeted homosexuality, and cavalier attitudes toward player injuries, Playmakers proved too controversial to the NFL, which wielded its influence over ESPN to get the show killed. It’s hard to imagine what the NFL would give to trade its current scandals for one about how it hastened the demise of a show that merely fictionalized said scandals.
ESPN launched Playmakers at a time when dabbling in original programming was more than a by-the-numbers business decision. With HBO riding high on the success of The Sopranos and Sex And The City, staid cable networks used original programming to demonstrate their commitment to quality of breadth over appeal. HBO’s dizzying rise set the agenda, demanding shows that settled for pushing the limits of broadcast standards if they couldn’t innovate within the medium. Playmakers made the ideal draft pick.
The show was created by John Eisendrath, who had just come off of a stint writing for ABC’s Alias. The pilot establishes a simmering rivalry between rookie running back Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding) and Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), a nine-year vet in the position. Taylor returns to the Cougars, after being placed on reserve due to an injury, with the goal of taking back the spotlight since usurped by the agile Harris.
Harris echoes a familiar trope in pro-sports fiction, that of the naturally-gifted black athlete who relies on his genetic advantages in lieu of hard work and discipline. He’s a party monster with a libido as insatiable as his coke habit, and from its pilot episode, Harris is used to demonstrate the League’s tendency to coddle its players’ personal demons. Rather than face the consequences of a failed random drug test, Harris gets a sketchy doctor to pump clean urine into his bladder through a urethral catheter, a novel solution suggested by a league executive more interested in Harris’ present than his future.
Taylor, meanwhile, has a hair-trigger temper, a flaw exacerbated by his cresting insecurity over his ability to compete with the younger, nimbler Harris. His wife Robin (Karen LeBlanc) gently urges him to take the injury as a sign to walk away from the game and transition into a broadcasting career. Tension between the couple mounts, especially as a flirtatious reporter (Thea Andrews) circles Taylor, offering him an illicit opportunity to buttress his waning confidence. The conflict comes to a head in the third episode, “The Choice,” when an argument between the Taylors escalates to physical violence, and they spend the remainder of the season trying to cover it up.
Playmakers also followed Eric Olcyzk (Jason Matthew Smith), a linebacker struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after making a massive hit that results in an opponent’s tetraplegia. Olcyzk is in treatment with a therapist, but at the League’s dime. Naturally, the League is focused on pressuring Olcyzk to embrace his enforcer role and view the occasional spinal injury the same way it does—as an unavoidable cost in the bloodsport business. Dan Petronijevic recurred on Playmakers as Thad Guerwicz, a Cougars wide receiver concealing his homosexuality at a steep psychological cost.
The show became a target even before its pilot debuted, thanks to a trademark infringement suit filed by a sports management agency with the same name. In an order denying the agency a preliminary injunction against the show, a federal judge penned a hilariously concise description of Playmakers: “The program depicts professional football players both on and off (mostly off) the field, and includes scenes of football players using steroids, womanizing, using illegal drugs, and generally being discriminatory.” According to reports, NFL executives and insiders saw the show much the same way. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie bashed ESPN and its parent, The Walt Disney Company: “How would they like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?”
It’s precisely that portrayal that made Playmakers a commercial success, pulling in ratings that would have ensured a second season if not for the meddling of then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The show averaged 1.62 million viewers, a number that was viewed at the time as a modest but promising start to a cable original, but looks far more impressive today. Many network shows don’t put up numbers like those, and Playmakers did so long before the rise of time-shifting gave networks another metric by which to measure audience enthusiasm.
The critical response to Playmakers was more measured and complex. The show has been written about fondly within the past few years, but the retrospective praise has more to do with the shady, censorial circumstances surrounding the show’s cancellation than the show itself. Critics heralded Playmakers’ boldness, in part because of the cozy relationship between ESPN and the NFL, as well as its tendency to flout the decency standards expected of cable originals. ESPN’s Bill Simmons summarized the critical response in his review, comparing it to an HBO show often omitted from discussions of its history: “Playmakers is an intense, fairly exhausting show, like if someone took Oz and watered it down, removed the gang rapes and threw football helmets on everybody.”
Indeed, Playmakers shows promise throughout its 11 episodes, but repeatedly undermines itself by striving so hard to be shocking and irreverent that it can’t help but drift into self-parody. Its most recognizable conflict is the rivalry between Taylor, the stubborn lion in winter, and Harris, the hotshot who attributes his success to his worst habits as an excuse not to abandon them. The Cougars’ Coach George (Tony Denison) tries to placate Taylor but in the most tone-deaf way, essentially defining Taylor’s role as a mentor to Harris. Playmakers misses the opportunity to fully exploit the relationship, keeping Taylor and Harris mostly separated as they navigated their personal struggles.
The NFL’s problem with Playmakers was that it depicted professional football as a world where rampant drug use, abuse of women, and exploitation of players take place. The show’s creative problem was that it depicted pro football as a world in which those things are all that takes place. Eisendrath’s approach makes for a soapy, guilty pleasure, but Playmakers isn’t much interested with the actual game of football.
Of the NFL scandals to break in the past decade, not all of them are related to the porous division between players’ personal and professional lives. Playmakers could have drawn its inspiration from play-related controversies like the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” program, accusations of spying and ball deflation by the New England Patriots, and the aggressive playing style of the Detroit Lions’ Ndamukong Suh, to name recent examples. That approach would have likely drawn just as much ire from the NFL, but Playmakers would have looked more noble and less trashy had it broken its focus on its characters’ personal skeletons.
Playmakers was attractively shot, full of kinetic camerawork to mimic its characters’ forward momentum on the field and downward spiraling off the field. The performances are hit-and-miss, but are strong more often than not, and energetic even at their worst. Hornsby’s performance as Taylor anchors Playmakers, but he didn’t receive the bulk of the critical notices because the character wasn’t showy enough. Instead, the attention went to Gooding, who was cast against type to play Harris despite being best known for corralling Nickelodeon’s Wild & Crazy Kids and occupying supporting roles in middling family sitcoms. Gooding’s performance isn’t great, but it’s certainly forceful, with Gooding reading voice-over about his coke-tainted urine as if it’s elegant prose.
For all its flaws, Playmakers had a shot at becoming a much better show precisely because of its frenzied, prurient plotting. The show burns the narrative candle at both ends, but a second season would have provided it the opportunity to broaden its scope on the Cougars, having explored nearly every personal conflict imaginable in its first season. The tragedy of Playmakers’ cancellation was its stark, depressing reminder of bureaucratic reality, which is especially stinging in the wake of the NFL’s recent scandals. The show was ESPN’s third most-watched broadcast, only trailing actual professional and collegiate football. Despite the show’s healthy performance, ESPN’s broader network strategy, and the public embarrassment stemming from its decision to cancel Playmakers, the network did it anyway. There was no bigger threat than the possibility of the NFL declaring, in a huff, that it was going elsewhere and taking its football with it.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wannabe with wonder potential.
Next time: Sons & Daughters was a modern family before it was cool.