- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

News Item: Citing their distaste for ESPN’s football-themed drama “Playmakers” and the hiring of Rush Limbaugh, two members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers declined to be interviewed by both the network and ESPN.com following the team’s recent “Monday Night Football” loss to the Indianapolis Colts. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue also has criticized the show.

Boo-hoo.

Now, does everyone feel better?

Granted, it’s hard to dispute Rush Limbaugh’s status as a large, somewhat-rotund pigskin dummy. Especially when the guy reportedly has a pill problem. Which, come to think of it, would fit right in on “Playmakers.”

Likewise, both the Bucs and the league have good reason to dislike the ESPN program, a weekly series about a fictional pro team that makes cynical fare such as “North Dallas Forty” and Oliver Stone’s acid-washed “Any Given Sunday” look like “Brian’s Song” and “Knute Rockne, All-American,” respectively.

From the starting quarterback to the backup tailback, the show’s “Cougars” are a thoroughly despicable bunch. Charitably speaking. They’re the sort of guys who smack their wives, lie to the police, batter their secret gay boyfriends and steal painkilling meds from bedridden, terminally-ill kids — that is, when they’re not busy using a tenuous grasp of Hawthorne to bed the owner’s inebriated daughter.

And that’s just in last week’s episode.

“It’s horrible, total garbage,” Tampa Bay receiver Joe Jurevicius told the St. Petersburg Times last month. “Sure, there are things that go on in the NFL. But not like that. That was exaggerated to the point where I felt, I can’t believe that ESPN was showing it. There’s no doubt that they went overboard. It was ridiculous.”

Added Tagliabue: “It’s a gross mischaracterization of our sport.”

Maybe so. Still, the show’s critics seem to be missing the point: “Playmakers” isn’t a documentary. It’s a drama. An exercise in make-believe. Like “Harry Potter.” Or Iraqi WMD’s. And frankly, if Fox’s “The O.C.” and the fake crash tests on NBC’s “Dateline” have taught us anything about prime-time television, it’s that overboard, ridiculous exaggerations aren’t simply accepted. They’re encouraged.

To put it another way: If “Playmakers” didn’t resemble the NFL as scripted by an unholy tag team of Aaron Spelling and Quentin Tarantino, the show wouldn’t be half as much fun to watch.

Consider Cougars running back Demetrius Harris, played by actor Omar Gooding. In the program’s premier episode, Harris wakes up on game day between two naked women. Half-snorted lines of cocaine are strewn across his coffee table. While driving to the stadium, he’s pulled over for speeding. Facing an open-and-shut possession bust, he charms his way into a harmless warning. Sufficiently chastened, Harris then stops at a nearby crackhouse, the better to get high just before kickoff.

Oh, and just for good measure, our hero finishes with 100-plus yards, earning a game ball for his efforts.

Is this realistic? Hardly. Is it flattering? Not in the least. Is it compelling? Absolutely. In a guilty, trashy way. And as such, entirely necessary for a gridiron-inspired show that’s attempting to — gasp — draw an audience. Though “Playmakers” purports to reveal pro football’s seamy underbelly, the sport’s real dirty little secret is this: By and large, NFL players lead remarkably boring off-the-field lives. Just like the rest of us.

In fact, the average day of a true-to-life Demetrius Harris would go something like this:

Harris wakes up in bed, wedged between an Xbox controller and the Starfleet Command-sized remote control that comes with his 100-inch plasma TV. He scarfs an energy drink/protein shake — carefully checking the label for banned substances — then grabs his playbook from the coffee table before heading to Cougars Park. A two-hour practice ensues, followed by lunch, team meetings and film study. False starts are a point of emphasis. Harris spends another 45 minutes in the trainer’s room before trading cliches with a group of reporters in the team parking lot. On his way home, he stops at Harris Teeter to pick up some orange juice. His wife, Jessica Simpson, greets him at the door. “Nick,” she asks in an earnest tone, “Why did you buy ‘Chicken of the Sea?’ I asked for tuna fish …”

Whoops. Wrong reality show. Still, the fact remains that television doesn’t sweat the small stuff — let alone the big stuff — when it comes to the mundane nature of most professions. Otherwise, the doctors on “ER” would be swamped with broken arms and uninsured patients. “The Practice” would revolve around billing disputes and 12-hour workdays. And the cops of “NYPD Blue” would spend as much time filling out forms as showering together.

Honestly, if New York’s actual finest don’t raise a peep when Sipowicz’s bare buttocks are beamed out to millions upon millions of Nielsen households, night after terrifying night, then why are a few Bucs so bent out of shape?

Moreover, it’s not as though the fictional miscreants on “Playmakers” are the only folks giving pro football players a bad image. To the contrary, a handful of NFLers have managed to do a pretty good job of that by themselves. Without the benefit of lights and makeup, to say nothing of incessant cross-promotion on “SportsCenter.”

(And no, the above is not a reference to the Colts’ pitch-and-catch duo of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Even though they made the Tampa Bay secondary look downright derelict).

Last Tuesday — coincidentally, the same day the most recent episode of “Playmakers” aired — New Orleans Saints cornerback Keyuo Craver earned a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Chicago Bears running back Rabih Abdullah was charged with driving under the influence after flipping his SUV on Interstate 94. And New York Jets defensive lineman John Abraham pled guilty to a recent drunk driving charge, earning a one-game sit-down from coach Herman Edwards.

Then there’s the NFL running back whose current legal woes — he stands accused of using his Humvee to ram a car carrying his wife, their 2-year-old son and their baby-sitter — would give Demetrius Harris a nose bleed. Er, an even worse nose bleed.

Already facing a January trial on two felony counts of aggravated assault, the real-world runner reportedly was indicted on a third felony charge of aggravated domestic violence, a charge that targets accused repeat offenders and carries a mandatory four-month jail sentence upon conviction.

Translation: We’re not talking about a model citizen.

The troubled tailback in question? Michael Pittman. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He plays for Tampa Bay. Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, both the Bucs and the league might want to save a little sanctimony for the mirror before overreacting to ESPN’s pigskin soap opera. Let alone the network’s brief dalliance with Limbaugh.

Speaking of which: If a few image-minded Bucs really want to protest the overhyped acquisition of a grating blowhard — well, what about the club trading not one but two first-round draft picks for Keyshawn Johnson?

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