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ESPN's 'Playmakers' series draws ire from across NFL

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive tackle Warren Sapp says the ESPN series "Playmakers" is "the worst show on TV" and "a slap in your face." His opinion is shared by many NFL players.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive tackle Warren Sapp says the ESPN series "Playmakers" is "the worst show on TV" and "a slap in your face." His opinion is shared by many NFL players.
Peter Cosgrove, Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's 30 minutes before kickoff and star running back Demetrius Harris is in the 'hood getting a quick fix. He makes it to the stadium on time, high on cocaine, and rushes for 147 yards while leading the Cougars to a victory.

Reality? Nope, a scene from ESPN's new series "Playmakers," about a fictional professional football team.

The owner is a ruthless tyrant, the coach has a serious illness and the team doctor will lie when pressured by management.

Harris is on drugs and his veteran backup dabbled with andro to try to get his job back. He's also got serious marital problems, no thanks to the female TV reporter relentlessly pursuing him.

The linebacker has emotional problems after paralyzing another player with a hard hit, and the quarterback pops anti-inflammatory pills like candy to keep playing through his pain.

And that's all in just the first three episodes.

ESPN insists it's only a drama, but players around the NFL are calling it stereotypical garbage.

"That's the worst show on TV," Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "If you were in our locker room and did what we did day in and day out, that's a slap in your face.

"You put this TV show on like this is reality. This is my profession . . . It's not a joke."

Players are so outraged over the way a professional team is portrayed that the NFL Players Association said it has complained to ESPN and asked the network not to air any more episodes.

"Every character in the show is relentlessly compromised and corrupt," said Doug Allen, a former player and assistant executive director of the NFLPA. "If that's not bad enough, it's clear that it is not a satire, that it is intended to the viewer to be real.

"They pile on all this exaggerated negative stereotyping in every character and that is not real life in the National Football League. ESPN is perpetrating a fraud on the consumer."

The show, ESPN's first original drama, is created by John Eisendrath, a former college football player and a writer-producer of "Alias."

ESPN said Eisendrath has talked to former players to get a grasp on football jargon and how an athlete thinks. The rest is imagination.

"It is total fiction, dramatic entertainment," said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment. "Being that ESPN covers so many sports with all our news and information, what people expect from us is documentary — but this is 180 degrees from that."

Semiao said at least 30 players have contacted the network about making cameos, but ESPN declined because, "This is a drama, not reality."

And Semiao is disappointed that players across the league don't recognize that.

"It's a little frustrating because I don't hear doctors saying about 'ER' that that could never happen," he said. "Those people happen to take it for what it is, which is entertainment."

Eleven episodes are planned for this season; three have already aired.

Players complain that all the characters are flawed.

"There are a lot of smart, intelligent, great guys who play football," Seattle center Robbie Tobeck said. "There are family men, guys who do a lot for charity. It's a shame ESPN would put a show out that gives the wrong image."

They also criticize the show's depiction of day-to-day locker room scenarios, like a weightlifting competition between two rivals and the way two men in black suits forced a player to strip naked in front of them and urinate in a cup for his drug test.

"If it was like that, I'd fail because I'd refuse to take the test," Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said.

The show has turned into water-cooler talk every Wednesday in the Panthers' locker room, where players mock the previous night's episode.

If there was one franchise that could relate to the Cougars' dysfunction, it would probably be Carolina.

After all, former player Rae Carruth was convicted of plotting his pregnant girlfriend's murder, Fred Lane was shot dead by his wife and Kerry Collins was punched in the face for using a racial slur. A player once attacked a coach on the sideline, and star receiver Steve Smith beat up a teammate in a film session last year.

But not even the Panthers, who have desperately tried to clean up their image, find "Playmakers" plausible.

"The show makes people think all this must go on, but it's really just Hollywood," receiver Muhsin Muhammad. "Most of the scenarios could not take place in the NFL."

The NFLPA believes low ratings will be the only thing to take the show off the air.

However, word of mouth and favorable entertainment reviews have given "Playmakers" a buzz — Tuesday's episode was the most-watched cable program in its time slot among ESPN's coveted male 18-to-34 demographic, the network said. It's overall rating was 1.6 (1.4 million households).

"There's an old Hollywood saying that it doesn't matter what they say, as long as you spell the name right," Semiao said.