The season finale of ESPN's Playmakers left unclear the fates of
several Cougars players, questions that may never be resolved.
Despite strong ratings and critical acclaim, the show might not
be renewed because the same things that make it popular with
viewers--wild plot lines in which players abuse drugs, women and
each other--have angered the NFL.
The network says the show was never intended to be a roman a
cleat. "Playmakers is no more about life in the NFL than Gomer
Pyle is about the Marine corps," insists Ron Semiao of ESPN
Original Entertainment. That didn't stop NFL commissioner Paul
Tagliabue from calling Michael Eisner, president of ESPN's parent
company, Disney, to voice his concerns. Gene Upshaw, head of the
players' union, has labeled it "racist." And NFL owners have
lashed out. "Disney's brand is Mickey Mouse and the Magic
Kingdom," said Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. "How would they like
it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic
Kingdom as a drug cartel?"
The league can't force ESPN to take Playmakers off the air--the
show doesn't use NFL trademarks--but it could choose to not renew
its broadcast deals with ESPN and ABC when they expire in 2005.
(Lurie has said the league might cut ties to ESPN if the show
stays.) Sponsors have found themselves in the middle: Gatorade,
which pays $20 million a year to place its product on NFL
sidelines, pulled ads from the final episode. "We get feedback
from our rights holders and viewers," says Semiao. "We take that
seriously, and we use it as part of the evaluation process." (One
voice ESPN is not hearing is that of the Bucs' Warren Sapp, who
isn't talking to the network's reporters because of the show.)
Semiao denies reports that Playmakers has already been canceled
and says there's no timetable for renewal. Omar Gooding, who
plays running back Demetrius Harris, expects to find out in
January. "It fascinates me that they would go to such levels as
saying, 'They should pull the show,'" says Gooding. "Come on,
man. This is fiction. It's not like people are going to stop
watching football because they see the show." --M.B.