Given ESPN’s stupendously deep financial relationship with the NFL, a show like the 2003 series Playmakers would never make the air now. In fact, it feels like a minor miracle that it ever did, especially under the current Goodell “No Fun League” umbrella. Though many of the characters were cartoonish stretches of stereotype — the flashy, full-of-himself D.H., painkiller-popping QB Derek McConnell, the closeted wide receiver Dan Petronijevic — it was a series that hit home hard enough that Paul Tagliabue, commissioner at the time, complained about it to ABC executives. The words “National Football League” were never said, but it was clear that Playmakers hit a nerve. In a week where HBO’s foray into the pro football lifestyle, Ballers, is set to air, it’s worth looking back at one of ESPN’s riskiest shows ever.
(By the way, I would love to see someone show Roger Goodell a cut for a gritty reboot of Playmakers. He would shit his pants.)
To be fair, Playmakers was a deeply silly show. First of all, the starting backfield — well, the starting backfield had issues. Leon Taylor, a former star, has started juicing in order to regain his form, with a side effect of domestic violence. D.H., the flashy rookie played by Omar Gooding, can’t kick a crack-smoking habit which sends him in a panicked search for clean pee, a situation he resolves by injecting clean pee into his bladder. The issues that other players, such as linebacker Eric Olczyk, face are rendered at their most extreme: Olcyzk is grappling with the fact that he paralyzed another player last season and can’t come to terms with it. (He also gets a girl who isn’t his girlfriend pregnant). How these guys can get their shit enough to make a play seems like a concern far from the universe of the Cougars’ locker room.
In terms of the tone of the show, it was, as you can probably imagine, pretty dark for the time. Playmakers stylistically borrowed from 1999’s Any Given Sunday, offering quick bursts of football action in the midst of moody, mercurial interaction between the players, the coaches, and the team owners. Playmakers attempted to capture the concerns of the era; in one memorable episode, a thinly-veiled-Michael-Vick character named Luther Hawkwins challenges random Cougars to a game of touch football outside the club. Themes of infidelity, aging, sexuality, drug use and domestic are brought up repeatedly and writ large. Given that these are the very things the NFL is struggling with at the moment — including the somewhat forward-thinking Olcyzk storyline that concerns the real ramifications of debilitating injuries in the NFL — Playmakers, even in its broad-stroking, sublety-lacking reality, now feels ahead of its time.
This Sunday will bring forth Ballers, a show that echoes elements of Playmakers but more or less looks like Football Entourage. Starring Dwayne Johnston — our Ari, if you will — Ballers appears to be much more major-key and maximalist. Playmakers was inward looking, even if “looking in” didn’t really go much further than the surface, where Ballers appears to be more like, “Hey dude, tight boat! [High fives all around].” Ballers could be the fantasy that pro sports wants to live in right now. Playmakers, while probably falling far short of being a “good” show — pressure from the NFL meant the series was mothballed after one season — hinted at something far more harrowing and ultimately, real. Pretty good for a stupid show, huh.