The season finale of ESPN's Playmakers left unclear the fates of several Cougars players, questions that may never be resolved. Despite strong ratings and critical acclaim, the show might not be renewed because the same things that make it popular with viewers—wild plot lines in which players abuse drugs, women and each other—have angered the NFL.
The network says the show was never intended to be a roman � cleat. "Playmakers is no more about life in the NFL than Gomer Pyle is about the Marine corps," insists Ron Semiao of ESPN Original Entertainment That didn't stop NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue from calling Michael Eisner, president of ESPN's parent company, Disney, to voice his concerns. Gene Upshaw, head of the players' union, has labeled it "racist." And NFL owners have lashed out. " Disney's brand is Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom," said Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. "How would they like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?"
The league can't force ESPN to take Playmakers off the air—the show doesn't use NFL trademarks—but it could choose to not renew its broadcast deals with ESPN and ABC when they expire in 2005. (Lurie has said the league might cut ties to ESPN if the show stays.) Sponsors have found themselves in the middle: Gatorade, which pays $20 million a year to place its product on NFL sidelines, pulled ads from the final episode. "We get feedback from our rights holders and viewers," says Semiao. "We take that seriously, and we use it as part of the evaluation process." (One voice ESPN is nor hearing is that of the Bucs' Warren Sapp, who isn't talking to the network's reporters because of the show.)
Semiao denies reports that Playmakers has already been canceled and says there's no timetable for renewal. Omar Gooding, who plays running back Demetrius Harris, expects to find out in January. "It fascinates me that they would go to such levels as saying, 'They should pull the show,' " says Gooding. "Come on, man. This is fiction. It's not like people are going to stop watching football because they see the show."