Popular `Playmakers' hasn't won over NFL

ESPN defends its drama as fictional TV, but league may block second season

Pro Football

October 26, 2003|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The drug-addicted running back resorts to stealing pain pills from a terminally ill kid in a hospital. Another player tries to conceal he is gay by decking his partner in a bar. The amoral quarterback had the trainer take care of his girlfriend's abortion. The veteran leader has been charged with spousal abuse.

It's just another week in the life of the Cougars, a team full of some of the most loathsome characters ever to put on a uniform. These guys go so far over the line, they have drawn the ire of the National Football League, although not for reasons you'd think.

The Cougars are the fictional pro football team in ESPN's Tuesday night drama, Playmakers. The show doesn't spend much time detailing how the quarterback dissects film.

Rather, the story lines offer behind-the-scenes twists at every turn, some of them straining credulity. Playmakers has the feel of a soap opera for football fans.

The formula is working. ESPN's first foray into a dramatic series has been a huge hit, with an average audience of 1.63 million households per airing. Outside of NFL games and prime-time college football, Playmakers has been among ESPN's highest-rated shows this fall.

The program has a large following among men ages 18 to 34. But it also has some key detractors in that category.

Several NFL players have spoken out about their dislike for Playmakers. They believe it is an extreme exaggeration as to what really goes on behind closed doors.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue quickly came to the players' defense saying the show "is a gross characterization of our sport."

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, went on the attack last week after hearing several players express their concerns about the show.

"I really don't believe our broadcast partners [ESPN airs Sunday night games] should be participating in that type of program, because it is portraying players in the wrong light," Upshaw said in a speech to the Charlotte Touchdown Club.

Upshaw went as far as to say the show is "racist" because the majority of the players with problems on the show are black.

"We have some great players in this league, both black and white," Upshaw said. "But the way they are being portrayed is that they all have problems, that they all beat their wives, that they all have drug issues. ... The guys in the NFL don't resemble that. Yes, we've had guys who have had some incidents happen, but you don't see all of them on the same team."

Upshaw turned down a request for an interview Thursday, saying through a representative, "the comments speak for themselves."

The NFL isn't the only constituency up in arms. The Association for Women in Sports Media is upset over what it deems the stereotypical portrayal of a woman television reporter who flirts openly with the team's veteran running back. The association also cites a credibility problem in questioning why the network is using the actress on the show, Thea Andrews, as a correspondent on Cold Pizza, ESPN2's new morning show.

The negative reaction has ESPN on the defensive. Network executives keep stressing that the show isn't based on reality.

Ron Semiao, ESPN's senior vice president for original entertainment, said Playmakers is no more a portrayal of the NFL than McHale's Navy was of life in the Navy.

"This is dramatic television," Semiao said. "It's fiction. It's entertainment. [In Hollywood] things are condensed and blown up for entertainment purposes."

Semiao said the premise for Playmakers is the same as those for fictional police and hospital shows. He maintains ER wouldn't be a popular show if all they showed were patients coming to the emergency room with scraped knees.

Semiao said story lines are exaggerated for dramatic effect on Playmakers. He said viewers are sophisticated enough to know the difference.

"Yes, I'm a little surprised the NFL has had this reaction," Semiao said. "There have been dramatic cop shows on for years that portray the police chief in an unsavory manner. I've never seen this type of reaction from police departments. All of our research shows viewers don't associate this with the NFL. They watch it for what it is. It's TV."

Yet ESPN is sensitive to the NFL's feelings. The Sunday night games and all the other related NFL programming are among ESPN's most valuable properties, if not the most valuable.

That could be one of the reasons why ESPN has not decided whether Playmakers will return for a second season. Officially, Semiao said the network needs to determine what kind of time slots will be available for a dramatic series next fall.

There is speculation, however, ESPN could pull the plug if the NFL continues to howl. The last thing the network wants to do is damage its relationship with the league.

Obviously, there is considerable drama off the screen with Playmakers. On the screen, three shows are left in the season, with the next one coming Tuesday.

The coming attractions reveal the gay player will be outed by his former partner and tensions run high over the linebacker's in-season contract negotiations. Thanks to television drama, it never is a dull week with the Cougars.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing Co. paper.

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