October 29, 2003

ESPN's Playmakers Ahead of the Curve

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Earlier this year, my male apartmentmates and I found a common bonding experience. Every Tuesday night, we sit down and watch Playmakers, the dramatic series about a fictitious football team shown on ESPN.

Now we’ve taken some flak from our female apartmentmate. She snickers at us when she walks by, calling the show a “male soap,” but she’s wrong. While at times tacky and tasteless, the show also has a darker side. It examines the problems not only showcased by professional sports, but also those in our society today.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to believe that one team could be so messed up. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the running back is hooked on crack, another player beats his wife, a member of the secondary has violence issues with his father, and the coach has prostate cancer. I don’t think there’s ever been a collection of this much train wreckage. Not unless Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Ray Lewis, Steve Spurrier and Darryl Strawberry all join the same franchise will any NFL team ever have all of these problems. At times, the drama is too outlandish.

But not last night.

Last night the show tackled a serious issue that has been floating around in its storyline for weeks. Last night, the show took on intolerance and bigotry.

It comes down to this (and you might want to stop reading in case you have yet to watch last night’s episode): the wide receiver is gay, and the secondary unit is homophobic. On top of that, the team’s owner has an image obsession and feels that a gay player on the team will hurt ticket sales (Thus confirming my suspicion that the team is located in the southern mid-west, like St. Louis, but I digress …). In the end, the player is coerced into making a decision, one that eventually ends his season. In terms of dramatic high points, it just doesn’t get any better.

It appears life does.

A few seasons ago, Mike Piazza came out as the first openly straight baseball player. Being slammed by rumors in the press, the Mets’ catcher went public with his heterosexuality. Kudos to you Mr. Piazza, you showcased the insecurities of American males everywhere.

Much applause to ESPN for examining such a weighty subject matter, then. Sure, it’s okay to see homosexuals on NBC’s Will and Grace, and almost everyone I know loves Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but those are mainstream programs all aimed at getting Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer in front of the television together (let’s face it, when it’s him versus her, she always wins control of the remote). Last night, the sports network showcased American insecurities again, only this time it wasn’t during a Piazza press conference.

This amazed me because it was ESPN, the all male, all testosterone, all the time network. Last night’s episode played to the same audience that gets all worked up every February over the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. These are the same men who sit on the couch for Sunday football games with chips, salsa and beer, and scratch themselves during timeouts and commercial breaks.

And ESPN thought that they, that we — I include myself in the above category, with the exception of the scratching thing — could handle it. At the end of last night’s episode, bigotry and intolerance may have played the winning card in TV land, but hopefully not in life.

Sports have always played a part in bringing about equality. Title IX gave women a chance not just to compete on collegiate playing fields, but to also attend college — something most had never dreamed of before. Jackie Robinson proved that differently-skinned baseball players could contribute, paving the way for countless blacks, Hispanics and Asians to come, not just in baseball but in other walks of life. Now it appears that American sports culture has done it again, through ESPN’s portrayal of a prominent and timely issue.

Last night, bigotry and injustice may have won out in TV land, but all across America it was struck down. Thanks for being a leader, ESPN, and thanks for shows like Playmakers.

Archived article by Matt Janiga