Sports is colorblind. Nobody thinks of their heroes as black or white. They just say, “Go out and tackle that guy, go out and knock that guy out, go out and hit that home run.” And I think that’s one of the great things about sports in America.
— John Eisendrath, commentary, Playmakers pilot
This league’s like life. When you’re a playmaker, the rules don’t apply.
— DH (Omar Gooding), “Pilot”
Playmakers is about men. Big men and small men, aggressive, whiny, and angry men, intelligent and irresponsible men. As it happens, men who play professional football.
“You can take the humiliation, the hit to your pride. It’s not knowing what to do about it that kills you. It’s not about you being mediocre. You know you got skills. So what if you lead the team in tackles? He’s just flat out better than you are. You’re gonna get killed.” Middle linebacker Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) is watching film of his opponent this week, a man reputed to be the best at what he does, namely, plow through linebackers. Worried that he can’t do it, he asks coach how to go up against “something bigger than you.” “You just keep showing up,” answers Mike George (Tony Denison). “That’s all guys like you and me can do.”
Guys like you and me. It sounds good, even rousing, but such affiliations are fleeting in Playmakers. Or rather, they are erratic, prone to collapsing and reforming within minutes. Though the series — cancelled by ESPN after one season, due to pressures from the NFL and parent company Disney — reveals repeatedly the ways that men succumb to fear and pride, defend and deceive their teammates as well as their rivals and friends. As creator and writer John Eisendrath tells it during his commentary over the pilot episode, he didn’t conceive the series for ESPN (FX asked for a script, then passed on it). (A little bit more, though not much, of the series’ logistical background is available in two brief featurettes, “Behind the Scenes of Playmakers” and “On Set With Snoop Dogg,” who guest-stars as DH’s older brother in “Tenth of a Second.”)
Given this inception, it’s not surprising that the series focuses less on the sport per se — the games, the plays, the action scenes — than on interactions among men. The games that do appear on screen, as Eisendrath points out, are rendered in “subjective” images, accompanied by voiceovers. In the pilot, these belong to three players on the fictional Carolina Cougars — Olczyk; his best friend, veteran running back Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby); and rowdy, self-loving rookie RB Demetrius “DH” Harris (Omar Gooding) — each self-absorbed and wound so tight that he’s unable to see beyond his immediate situation, whether this is the play at hand, or more often, some looming emotional or career crisis. The show wasn’t deemed a “male soap opera” for nothing. “These guys,” says Eisendrath, “could be insurance salesmen, sell encyclopedias door to door, do anything. Football was particularly interesting because it’s such a macho world that has such strict rules about what you can and can’t say, feelings you can and can’t show.”
These “rules” — unspoken, misunderstood, implacable — can be onerous. Football is notoriously brutal, of course, but in Playmakers, the emergencies come alarmingly fast and furious. They have to do with masculinity and posturing, as they have to do with race and gender identities; much as Eisendrath asserts that sports is “colorblind,” his show reveals the many ways that race creates bonds and divisions, expectations and loyalties.
Consider the differences between Olczyk and DH, both in perpetual crisis throughout the season. Olczyk’s issues are personal: “You hate the game but you don’t have the strength to leave it. So you play angry, like someone’s gonna pay for this. And that’s what makes you good, what separates you from the rest, what makes you a killer.” For Olczyk, this isn’t just a figure of speech, as he feels responsible for the death of his brother, on a high school football field, where both played for their ruthless coach of a dad (this melodrama is revisited in flashbacks, facilitated by Olczyk’s sessions with the team shrink).
For DH, the stakes of “being a killer” are different, if no less literal. “No one looks out for you,” he asserts. “So you look out for yourself.” This might be understood as the lesson learned most frequently on Playmakers, where the Cougars battle to make just the edge of the playoffs. DH’s particular problems, aside from his cockiness and performative entitlement, are a ferocious crack addiction and an entourage of stereotypical homeboys. When one of them gets involved in a nightclub shooting, DH is pressured to lie to the cops. Watching DH get high before a game in the pilot, Eisendrath recalls the “complaints that the show didn’t really show the players in the most positive light, and yes, there’s DH hiding drugs.”
As he goes on to defend the “sympathetic” characters on the show, Eisendrath doesn’t return to the more pressing and infinitely more compelling subject, the series-ending conflict with the network over Playmakers‘ content. Certainly, the series piles on the catastrophes. DH, for one, is a hound for trouble, no doubt, involving his best friend Kelvin “Buffalo” James (Marcello Thadford) in run-ins with traffic cops and an overdose victim, whom they deposit on the hospital’s curb, as DH asks, incredibly, “Yo, shorty gonna be all right?” (The fact that Kelvin is eventually diagnosed with diabetes, as he struggles to keep his weight up, instigates is own crisis late in the season.) In the first episode, he lays out his plan for survival, watching himself in a filthy bathroom mirror just after he’s sniffed up a pipe full of crack: “Lesson number one, don’t do drugs. Gotta work on that,” he smiles. “Lesson number two, act like you’re the shit, not some second generation dime bag junkie can’t go 12 hours without a high. You got that one cold.”
On the other hand, his rival for starting RB, Leon, is plagued throughout he season by his age — at 30, he’s already over the hill (during the pilot, the other players open the season by giving him a rocking chair). Battling the perception that he’ll never recover from an injury suffered last season, he works too hard, fights with his wife, Robin (Karen LeBlanc), and then convinces her to lie about it to the press. Bouncing up and down all season, he can’t hardly keep up with the coaching decisions made game to game: he’s starting, he’s not starting, he’s got one play, he’s not picked up for next season, he’s re-injured, and then he’s not. As he puts it, not a little ruefully, “You get your hopes up, for a second. Then you remember, hope’s got no place in the pros after you turn 30.”
The potential loss of hope is a frequent subject for Playmakers, whether for Coach George facing prostate cancer, Olczyk facing a pregnancy following an uncharacteristic one-night stand, team manager Phil Chambers (Stephen Bogaert) facing the limits of his career. This team sport is, as Thad Guerwitcz (Dan Petronijevic), all about individual decisions. “Football is deception,” he says, in the episode, “Man in Motion,” that reveals he’s gay. As this storyline builds, the stakes shift, from his personal struggle to hide the truth (to maintain a relationship with a girl, to the point of asking her to marry him, even as his boyfriend, David [Frank Chiesurin], presses him for a commitment) to his teammates’ harassments (which reduce to a macho beatdown on the practice field) to the efforts by the bottom-line-minded owner, Wilbanks [Bruce Gray], to sideline him). Thad’s prodigious efforts to “prove” himself — as whatever the sport’s ideal man might be — wins him a ticket to the Pro Bowl, but can’t hold up against the machine of the team, or more broadly, the industry of football.
This industry is illuminated and exaggerated throughout Playmakers. And as the specific frustrations and ambitions of each player turn increasingly absurd, the show only turns increasingly absorbing. In the last episode, “Week 17,” Coach George asserts, “No one is bigger than the team.” And this is the game’s central contradiction: the stars are “bigger” than the team, even as the team absorbs their transitory celebrity. The system repays bad behavior and outrageousness, on and off the field, then insists that such displays are unwarranted and unwelcome. Exposing contradiction and hypocrisy, violence and apprehension, Playmakers is compelling, almost in spite of itself.
By the season’s end, Leon has lost his various battles, to keep his Cougars contract and gain a tv sportscaster contract, to keep his name out of gossip columns and off a legal indictment for felony domestic abuse. And so, he feels he has lost his hope as well. Given Playmakers‘ abrupt cancellation, his closing lines seem especially apt. Watching a huge sports drink ad, featuring his face, come down off a building, he laments that he hasn’t had “time” to deal with the change gracefully, or make other arrangements. “All you can do,” he sighs, “is stand there and watch yourself disappear.”