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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

'Playmakers' the thing
But whose conscience is it catching?

It was a throwaway comment and a case of life imitating art imitating life. That's if you're willing to consider ESPN's first fictional series, "Playmakers," art.

During the height of the Rush Limbaugh controversy, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb told reporters, "This won't affect anything I do. If they want me to come on 'Playmakers,' I'll go on 'Playmakers.' I'm still looking for my shot on 'Playmakers.' "

At the time, McNabb was looking more like a punching bag to opposing defenses and the fledgling drama was just starting to find a primetime audience.

My, how things have changed.

McNabb is looking stronger every week, the Eagles are now tied atop the NFC East and owner Jeff Lurie has given ESPN an ultimatum: Punt "Playmakers" from its lineup or risk losing coverage of the league's games.

If you haven't seen the show, which ended its first season Tuesday, it seems to take its cues from "Law and Order," "Nip/Tuck," and "NYPD Blue."  The drama uses a fictional football team to examine such issues as drugs, spousal abuse, casual sex, locker-room fights and homosexual players.

We're not talking Shakespeare here folks. But its writing is crisp and the characters are entertaining, if not much more than cardboard caricatures of top athletes.

In fact, the only real faults I can find with the show is the time it comes on (8 p.m. for last week's repeat and 9 p.m. for this week's episode) and the channel.

Granted, it's on cable, but most shows of this serious nature come on broadcast TV around 10 p.m. when kids are in bed.

I'm also not sure I like the idea of ESPN, which stands for Entertainment Sports Network, lending its credibility to this kind of thing. The Disney-owned network has worked long and hard to become a top source of sports news, a far cry from the days when all it had to show was taped broadcasts of Australian rules football.

"Disney's brand is Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom," Lurie bristled at an Oct. 2 press conference. "How would they like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as [drug lord] Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel? That's what we're talking about."

Of course, this was at the height of the Limbaugh-McNabb flap, and Lurie went so far as to accuse ESPN of 'institutional racism.'

Asked if he was overreacting, he replied, "If you are an independent filmmaker and you want to go and make North Dallas Forty, there is something to be said for that. Fictional hospital accounts, there is something to be said for that. If you have, in America, people [who] believe NFL players are doing cocaine at halftime, I don't think it is a positive use of the airwaves."

I can't remember this type of outcry when HBO produced its football drama, "1st and Ten" in 1985. Nor can I understand why the Lurie, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the players' association are not laughing off the unflatering portrayal as unrealistic, the way plastic surgeons have Fox's "Nip/Tuck."

Perhaps because it isn't.

While I sincerely doubt any professional football player has ever smoked crack before a game, who knows? Who can forget Randy Moss running down a cop in his SUV a couple years back with a smouldering joint in his ashtray?

And let's not even get into O.J, Dwight Gooden or Kobe. Some days it's like you're reading the police blotter and the court news, rather than the sports page.

The point being, I would think NFL owners have more to think about than how a fictional TV show parodies them. And in Lurie's case, I'd be more worried about the potential of an age discrimination lawsuit from the likes of Duce Staley, Bobby Taylor and any other Eagle approaching or over 30 whose contract is still unsigned.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

Nov. 17, 2003