If you are anything like me, you were probably excited at the prospect of ESPN’s new drama, Playmakers. With every promotional spot (and there were many), I became more amped in anticipation of this new football show, reminiscent of HBO’s First and Ten. At first look, it had everything an ESPN junkie needs, especially welcome during the driest month of sports action: drama, sports, action, sex, and scandal. ESPN’s second attempt at original dramatic programming, following The Junction Boys, a feature-length movie about Bear Bryant, Playmaker is billed as taking sports fans “beyond Sunday’s glory, ‘good guy’ endorsements, and super-jock celebrity.”
Yet, despite its claims to behind-the-scenes realism (the website says the show is “scripted with unsentimental compassion”), the first episode only repeated what’s already available, in particular, racist and misogynist stereotypes in sports. And its attempts to go “beyond the glory” fall back on typical U.S. cultural anxieties with black bodies, while promulgating nostalgia for a (mythic) sports world based in character and community, that is, an era when sports was still a bastion of white males.
Following the players on game day (with a clock counting down minutes to kickoff), the pilot introduces Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding), the cocky and talented running back who is more concerned with satisfying his drug habit, sexual needs, and ego than with supporting his teammates or the game. His rival for the position is veteran Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), who tore up his knee during the previous season; now losing his job to Harris, he struggles to return to his old form. Throughout the first episode, Taylor confides in Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith), a linebacker haunted by his brother’s death during a high school football game, a recent collision that left an opponent paralyzed, and fears about his own future. Both Taylor and Olczyk embody the problems of contemporary sport, in that their loyalty and hard work are not rewarded, while arrogant hoodlums make millions.
But Playmakers is not just about players’ relationships, generational tensions, or even the struggling Cougars (a team in a fictional professional league who begin the series with a record of 2-3). It is a glimpse at everything we supposedly hate about modern-day sports: greedy athletes, their lack of respect for the game and lack of personal responsibility, and the cutthroat business practices of our favorite teams, as well as drugs, criminality, and adultery. Playmakers particularly presents these problems as they pertain to black males, exploiting the dominant racialized mythologies surrounding sports.
To this end, Playmakers repeatedly deploys stereotypes, alongside a trendy documentary style (quick cuts, voice-overs, blackout transitions) that appears to legitimize its sensationalized account of contemporary football. Visual choices repeatedly fetishize black bodies: the Cougars’ pre-game ritual includes three half-naked black men singing the Notre Dame “Fight Song” at the request of a white teammate, while the camera gaze focuses our attention on their bare black asses. Their bodies are the basis of the black players’ professional achievements: whereas both Harris and Taylor succeed on the field because of their talents, the “crafty,” intelligent — and white — Olczyk is good because of his hard work.
Harris, by contrast, is a drug-addicted, violent, and hypersexual black athlete. He arrives 90 minutes before kickoff, following a night of intense partying (which included an interracial threesome). As Coach George (Tony Denison) lectures the team about personal responsibility and commitment, Taylor (not at the meeting because he’s been stopped for a traffic violation), tells his lineman buddy Buffalo (Marcello Thedford), “When you’re a playmaker, rules don’t apply.” When Buffalo does arrive at the locker room, extremely late, he’s suspended; at this news, he destroys the locker room. Incredibly, Harris — the star RB whom the owner wants on the field at any cost — is allowed to play when he arrives even later, literally minutes before kickoff, having stopped off at his dealer’s for a panic fix.
Recapitulating hegemonic sports coverage, Playmakers offers a faux exposé of the destructive activities of black athletes. In this, it caters to white anger and fears about the declining significance of whiteness within the sports arena, and widely held beliefs about the attendant declining values within sports. Black “dominance” of sports is not only destroying America’s pastimes, this argument goes, but it is also contributing to a societal moral crisis: from Kobe Bryant to Barry Bonds, the criminal actions, me-first attitude, and general disrespect toward the fans are leaving white children with fewer role models who look like them.
Playmakers underlines this anxiety with its troubling presentation of women as appendages to men. Like professional sports, with its cheerleaders, and the sport pages, with it stripper ads, Playmakers displays women as sex objects and visual gratification. Beyond the half-naked women in Harris’ bed and the black players’ repeated references to sex, Playmakers demeans women in its presentation of Samantha, a female reporter who “only reports on her back.”
While Samantha might be used to reveal the notorious gender discrimination in sports reporting, here she only embodies familiar male fantasies when she seduces Taylor during an interview. Playmakers‘ claims to offer a “behind-the-scenes” look at the world of sports are as problematic as its promise to get beyond “super-jock celebrity.” Playmakers merely reinforces widely-held ideas about obnoxious superstars, women’s limited roles in the sports industry, and, again and again, black criminality.
Boring, sexist, and racist: a lethal combination. ESPN’s attempt to bridge sports and drama, fiction and reality television, is a bigger failure than the Washington Wizards. We can only hope that the network comes to its senses, or sticks to Sportscenter and its fantastic commercials. Unless Playmakers makes some big changes and trades, and soon, Tuesday will be an ESPN-free night, at least until World Championship Poker, the X-Games, or even Lumberjack competitions return to America’s favorite sports network.