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A flag on 'Playmakers'

Tampa Bay locker room talk about ESPN's overheated football drama Playmakers is uniformly angry and indignant.

Published September 16, 2003

TAMPA - Players say it is full of stereotypes, loaded with bad images and overrun with circumstances that are unrealistic and simply absurd.

A running back taking a heroin hit half an hour before a game? A coach who doesn't care about that? Cops willing to turn their backs on an obvious cocaine possession charge?

Not a chance, they said.

ESPN said it's pure entertainment, full of dramatic sequences, no different from NYPD Blue or ER.

But if ESPN programmers were expecting members of the National Football League to warmly embrace the network's new television show Playmakers, they'll have to think again.

Here in Tampa Bay, and in most NFL locker rooms, the response to Playmakers hasn't been kind. NFL players don't dislike it, they detest it.

"You feel personally attacked," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. "Obviously, there will be guys on different teams who will have different problems. But what about the viewer who doesn't know anything about football and doesn't know what the league is about? I have a huge problem with it."

Bucs receiver Joe Jurevicius said he watched the first 20 minutes of the premiere, turned it off and won't watch the rest.

"It was horrible, total garbage," Jurevicius said. "Sure, there are things that go on in the NFL but not like that. That was exaggerated to the point where I felt, I can't believe that ESPN was showing it. There's no doubt that they went overboard. It was ridiculous."

Throughout the league, even those who thought Playmakers provided some insights into professional football also felt the script writers have taken things too far.

"I'm not a fan of it personally and it's no reality of the NFL," said Cowboys offensive lineman Tyson Walter. "It's very cliched. I thought the first one was poorly done all around. I think they should stick to broadcasting sports and stop trying to make TV shows. MTV should stick to music videos and ESPN should stick to sports."

The 11-episode drama series, which airs every Tuesday at 9 p.m., is produced by John Eisendrath (Alias, Beverly Hills 90210) and Orly Anderson (The Junction Boys), with multiple directors.

Filmed in Toronto, Playmakers centers on the activities and lives of the players and coaches of a fictional team called the Cougars.

Starring Russell Hornsby, Jason Matthew Smith, Omar Gooding and Marcello Thedford, Playmakers attempts to take viewers into the secret, intriguing and unflattering world of professional football.

It should be noted that at no point in previews, ads or in the episodes themselves, is there any mention of the NFL.

"The powerfully creative team behind Playmakers will draw new viewers with a program our core viewers will also find dynamic and realistic," ESPN executive vice president for programming and production Mark Shapiro said in a statement.

That's where the trouble begins.

In the pilot, Cougars running back Demetrius Harris, played by Gooding, is introduced as the hot-dogging young player with no respect for the game, and - predictably, some players said - a serious drug problem.

Harris, portrayed as womanizer, is seen doing cocaine the night before and heroin less than an hour before the game. He then races to the stadium, gets there minutes before kickoff, and starts.

"Who the hell wakes up four hours before the game, with two women in bed and four lines of coke on the coffee table?" Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It's a slap in our face."

Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said the show touches on some real issues but added, "I don't think having the starting tailback blowing cocaine at the house and then going back to the stadium and playing in the game could be efficient like that. If they could, I would like to meet them. I think you do have some impressions of the guys in the locker room and just playing under pressure. I don't think a lot of guys really liked the way they portrayed how the NFL is. I don't think that's reality."

It took Playmakers two episodes to introduce not just drug use, but steroids, domestic abuse, extramarital affairs and players needing psychological counseling.

"That's a stretch," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "They probably took all the worst-case scenarios that have come out in the news of the NFL and just made it seem like it's NFL life."

In the second episode, one of the players finds himself needing to ensure a clean drug test. So he has someone else's urine inserted into his bladder through a catheter.


"It just doesn't happen," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "I tell people all the time, you're in the wrong business (if you're looking for steroids). There still is this perception out there that football players take steroids. Well, you can't do it in this league. If you do it, you get caught. These days they're busting people for Ephedrine. Look, go to baseball for that."

Players were equally stunned that ESPN, a network that promotes female reporters, would allow the mere suggestion of an intimate relationship between running back Leon Taylor, played by Hornsby, and a young female television reporter.

"It undermines a lot of the efforts made by female journalists," Lynch said. "They are undermining a lot of people."

Through the first three episodes, the female reporter continues to make overtures to Taylor, who is married. It is unclear in the script whether Harris' visions of the reporter indicate a past affair or dreams of a future one.

"That's an issue that's addressed at every rookie symposium," Brooks said. "It's addressed every year with the team. I've been here for nine years, with two head coaches and it was always addressed in our first team meeting, how to handle female reporters. Every single year, for the nine years I have been here. To see it being undermined to that level is terrible."

The NFL has made it clear that it is not happy with the series and points to the failing ratings through the first three episodes. ESPN has admitted that the show received a 2.4 rating in the first week, and then dropped to 2.0 and 1.6.

"It is a gross mischaracterization of our sport," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

ESPN says viewers know it's entertainment.

"It is fiction, scripted entertainment, not documentary," said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment, the network's driving force behind the series. "The American people, at large, recognize that it is not a documentary.

"Players are taking it the wrong way. Football is just the canvas, the backdrop."

The NFL and Disney, the parent company of ESPN and ABC, have a mutually dependent relationship. The two parties are in the middle of an eight-year, $9.2-billion contract that grants ESPN and ABC the rights to broadcast games on Sunday and Monday nights.

As a major financial player, the cable network has tremendous clout in locker rooms. Traditionally, ESPN reporters and cameras are granted quick and comprehensive access to players and coaches, access other members of the media aren't commonly afforded.

That, players said, makes the story lines in Playmakers even more surprising.

"Why would they do that?," Bulluck asked. "We go on their shows and stuff. It's almost like a slap in the face. It's kind of odd if you really sit down and think about it."

Added Lynch: "I don't know what their goal is. You know, for a network whose success strives upon athletes, sports and the NFL, to trash it is kind of puzzling to me. I think guys should really take offense to it."

Despite heavy complaints from players and the NFL Players Association, Semiao said some players have shown interest.

"We've gotten calls from about 30 different players asking for cameos, which we're not going to do," he said. "(The criticism) does not represent all the players."

"Who?" asked Sapp. "What idiot would allow himself to disgrace this beautiful game and our lives like that? I don't get it."

- Information from other news sources was used in this report.

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