"This league is like life," the star running back and main character of the short-lived ESPN drama, Playmakers, declares in the first episode as he watches his team's owner destroy a tape of him snorting cocaine off a naked woman's shoulder. "The rules don't apply."
This scene was one of many which made the show unlike any other depiction of professional football. In the first episode alone, a player, stabilized in a hospital bed after being paralyzed from a hit, says he can't feel his dick. The linebacker who paralyzed him is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of that hit coupled with football-related childhood trauma. An aging running back gets an injection on a scarred and mangled knee the morning of the game, lamenting the end of his invincibility. Meanwhile, the aforementioned star is woken up between two naked women, four hours late on gameday. On his way to the stadium, he gets pulled over for doing over 76 in a 35 zone. The cops, initially starstruck, soon notice cocaine powder on the seat of his Aston Martin. He and his friend—a backup lineman on the team—are handcuffed on the side of the road as kickoff approaches.
Playmakers, which aired on ESPN in 2003, is a show remembered not for its acting or cinematography, but for its controversy. For 11 episodes, the show poked and prodded at the seedy underbelly of professional football, following the fictional Cougars in an unnamed city and unnamed pro league that bears an uncanny resemblance to everything and anything NFL.
The womanizing quarterback finds out he has kidney failure from anti-inflammatory abuse, the star running back is a rampant drug user who has a doctor inject clean urine through his penis and into his bladder to pass a drug test, the aging running back is embroiled in a domestic violence scandal, the coach is diagnosed with cancer, and a lineman is diagnosed with diabetes but told he must maintain his weight to stay on the team. Players take drugs, players take more drugs, and then players take drugs some more. A large portion of the show is set in the VIP area of a nightclub, which half the team seems to frequent. No player is seen paying for anything, except for drugs.
The show was an entertaining depiction of one of the biggest sports leagues in the world, an extended hypothesis on what professional football life might really be like. The show would have died the unceremonious death of thousands of others short-lived TV series had it not been for the very organization it was depicting: the NFL.
Playmakers became defined by the NFL's reaction to it. For example, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "How would [Disney] like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?" (Disney owns ESPN.)
John Eisendrath, Playmaker's creator and showrunner, chuckled a bit when I read this quote to him over the phone. "Well, I think he's an idiot," Eisendrath said of Lurie. "He can be worth 70 billion dollars, that doesn't mean he's not a moron." Eisendrath's distaste is understandable, given that the NFL coerced and bullied ESPN to kick his show off the air.
'It's our opinion that we're not in the business of antagonizing our partner even though we've done it, and continued to carry it over the N.F.L.'s objections," then-ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro told the New York Times. "To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner's face.'' The Times reported then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner to complain about the show.
"They were really thugs," Eisendrath recalls. "Terrible thugs."
When Eisendrath sat down to write the pilot script—originally for FX, not ESPN—he had no intention of antagonizing the NFL. Instead, he saw a human drama unfolding every season, a conflict of interests and motives that would make for a good narrative and, more importantly, compelling television. "I love writing about men and male friendships. It was a show about men set in a background that I thought was a great one to dramatize and say the things I wanted to say about male friendships, that cliche truth that men are expected to be stoic—more so in the sports world—expected to be unemotional, when in truth, men, like women, are incredibly emotional, incredibly insecure, incredibly fearful," says Eisendrath. "The NFL is a grotesquely authoritarian world that frowns on individuality. So what a great place to put a show that highlights people's desires to be who they are."
Eisendrath primarily played with these themes through the characters of Leon and D.H., the team's two running backs. Leon, a veteran recovering from a torn ACL, is an aging family man who fears for his future with the team. D.H. is the flashy, young phenom with a troubled past and wild private life. There is also Leon's friend Eric Olczyk, a linebacker who is suffering from PTSD after paralyzing a player while confronting issues with his father.
FX decided to pass on the show, so Eisendrath put the script in his drawer. After about a year, ESPN put out the word that it was looking to develop original programming in an effort to diversify its audience. Eisendrath's agent sent ESPN the pilot script, and the network ordered 11 episodes.
Soon after, Peter Egan was brought on as a staff writer. "We never really wanted to do a kind of 'ripped from the headlines' thing, but we did want to have the feeling of edginess and verisimilitude for sure," Egan recalls. Several of the writers had been on sports teams in high school or college, so they wanted to bring the drama of locker room dynamics to the show.
Two major recurring themes were conflicts in players' private lives—often known in NFL parlance as "distractions"—and serious health issues that interfere with a player or coach's future. Neither theme's inclusion was inspired by any inside information on the NFL's dirty secrets. ESPN didn't provide any consultants, nor did any former players spill dirt on the goings-on behind closed doors. Eisdendrath and Egan, both avid sports fans, simply kept reading the news and injecting some common sense and empathy into real-life scenarios. By doing this, the Playmakers writing team was able to accurately predict several NFL scandals and controversies that have unfolded since the show aired.
In the second episode, the team doctor informs the quarterback that he has kidney failure as a result of his heavy anti-inflammatory usage. This came almost a year before the controversial anti-inflammatory Vioxx, which was often used in sports, was taken off the market altogether, and well before the prescription drug Toradol was popularized in both professional and collegiate football. When I asked Eisendrath how he came up with that plot element, he replied, "I'll tell you, it was either Shaq or my mother." Indeed, Shaquille O'Neal swore off anti-inflammatories in 2002 after Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with a kidney disorder.
Although the show was written before concussions became a major topic of conversation, the fictional quarterback's attitude towards his future health echoes the sentiment we now hear from many players about head trauma. "If you thought about what this game was costing you, 18 years of your life," the player says to himself, referencing the disparity in life expectancy between the average American male and NFL player, "you'd never play another down."
This is not to say the show was always so plausible. One episode, which occurs entirely during halftime of a critical game, features a barely-functioning D.H. in the throes of intense crack withdrawal. Unable to stand and puking every few minutes, he calls his dealer from the locker room stall and asks him to bring his fix to the team parking lot. Another player, Thad Guerwitcz, has to buy the crack for D.H., who is too busy vomiting all over himself in the stadium hallway. Within minutes of taking a hit, D.H. is good to go and ready to play.
That scene would prove crucial in later episodes, as Guerwitcz is revealed to be a gay. For Eisendrath, including a gay player was a no-brainer, since it was obvious to him that, statistically speaking, many sports teams would have at least one gay player. "That storyline was a simple manifestation of: how does someone deal with who they are when who they are is frowned upon in the world that they're living in?" Guerwitcz tries to save his career by getting engaged with a woman, but his ex-boyfriend outs him to the team.
The team's owner, a homophobic meddler only concerned with "appearances," tries to force Guerwitcz to go on injured reserve for the rest of the season, but Guerwitcz refuses since he isn't injured. Meanwhile, Guerwitcz, a Welker-like wide receiver, is thrown lame ducks during practice by the mildly homophobic quarterback and targeted by the aggressively homophobic linebackers and defensive backs, who give him quite a beating. But Guerwitcz keeps getting up, refusing to surrender. After being the only Cougar voted to the All-Star Game, he gives a speech in which he declares himself gay while rubbing it in the homophobes' faces that he's also the best player on the team. Afterwards, the owner shows Guerwitcz security footage of him buying drugs for D.H., blackmailing him into going on IR. The show won a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award for Outstanding Drama Series.
Obviously, there was plenty of creative license at hand in the portrayal of a gay player in an NFL locker room. But one element the show accurately foreshadowed was the media swarm surrounding such a story. Some might also see a parallel between Guerwitcz's treatment after his sexuality was revealed and how Michael Sam failed to catch on with a team. Much of the way the owner and hostile players discuss Guerwitcz's sexuality is reminiscent of the contrived "distraction" storyline surrounding Michael Sam, in which some GMs and owners worried he would attract a "media circus." Egan told me, "John saw 10 years in advance how a team could destroy a guy if they chose to."
Despite the show's relative success—1.62 million households per week, a solid number for a cable show at the time—ESPN received more and more ire from the NFL and its sponsors. Gatorade had been an early sponsor of the show, but dropped it during the season with little fanfare. Despite the external pressure, the show's creative team were never asked to tone it down. "In spite of what happened as the season unfolded," Egan recalled, "ESPN was incredibly supportive."
As Egan recalls, the show was in hot water before the first episode even aired. Word trickled down that Tagliabue was incensed by a promotion for the show during the Hall of Fame game that August and forbade ESPN from running promos during Sunday Night Football. In December 2003, HBO aired a segment on Real Sports about Playmakers in which Tagliabue spat that it was ''one-dimensional and traded in racial stereotypes, and I didn't think that was either appropriate for ESPN or right for our players.'' One can only imagine Tagliabue's reaction to Snoop Dogg guest-starring in the tenth episode as D.H.'s mature, responsible older brother. (Tagliabue did not reply to a request for comment.)
Eisendrath is still surprised by the NFL's immaturity in putting the kibosh on the show. "I remember thinking, what the hell is their problem? Everybody knows this. They might want to make believe that it's a fairy tale league, but who are they kidding? The NFL would prefer people believe [their players] have no flaws. That they're perfect. That they're Tom Brady and Gisele." Instead of seeing some great affront to the NFL's integrity, Eisendrath saw admirable characters struggling with their flaws amidst major life changes. That is, he saw them as good people who sometimes do bad things.
From Playmakers' perspective, the timing couldn't have been much worse. ESPN was in negotiations with the NFL for what eventually became a $1.1 billion per year contract for Monday Night Football. As the season wore on, the Playmakers team could see the writing on the wall. A few days after the Super Bowl, Shapiro called Eisendrath and told him there would be no second season.
This wouldn't be the last time the NFL flexed its muscles with regards to ESPN programming. In 2013, the New York Times once again reported that the NFL held a secret meeting with ESPN and Disney executives, forcing them to back out of an image-tarnishing programming partnership. This time, it was over a PBS-Frontline documentary, League of Denial, detailing the extensive risk of brain damage football players face and the NFL's efforts to withhold that information.
Eisendrath, who is now an executive producer on the NBC show The Blacklist, looks back on Playmakers with fond memories. He even wonders if he owes the NFL. "By being so brutishly, thuggishly, embarrassingly horrible...they singled it out in a way it never otherwise would have been singled out. Playmakers is held in much higher regard because of what the NFL did than it might otherwise have been if the NFL just ignored it."
By forcing the show's cancellation, the NFL implicitly acknowledged that it had something to hide, and that Playmakers was revealing it. Maybe it was simply seen as bad P.R., but far more likely is that, by depicting the players to be real people, the writers touched on truths the NFL didn't want us to know. "We tried our best to do that authentically, and I think we were successful," Egan said. "From the NFL's perspective, maybe too successful."