ESPN's Playmakers: Flawed, but still resonant today

July 19, 2021

may not be remembered as a great television show, particularly when assessed by today’s standards, but the 2003 drama about a fictional pro football team that aired on ESPN(!) has many of the hallmarks of modern prestige TV and holds its own alongside other classic melodramas. Others have ably recapped the show in broad strokes, but I have yet to read any analysis of the character Leon Taylor, and how he was, subtly, as wild as all the other emotional wrecks and arrested development cases on the Cougars.

At the time, Omar Gooding got a lot of attention for his portrayal of second-year star running back Demetrius Harris, which was entirely deserved because Gooding understood the assignment called for camp. The other actors sidled up to camp, but only Christopher Wiehl, in a smaller role as the horndog starting quarterback, came close to matching Gooding. Despite borrowing heavily from the aesthetic of Any Given Sunday, these other actors and the directors appear to have been under the impression they were making something more like The West Wing than Scandal. Couple that with the show's inability to give any woman a complicated inner life, and that explains most of why the show falls short of greatness.

But there's still a lot to chew on.

In particular, Russell Hornsby, as Leon, had an extremely difficult task because the character is written to make the audience think from the start that he’s the one good and sane man in the entire organization, the hero who will be tested, but who we can hope will pull us out of the muck. However, through a series of incidents and revelations over the course of the season, we learn Leon is a great liar, not only to his wife and friends, but to the show’s audience. He’s not a good man. He’s a moral monster.

It starts with how he treats his wife, Robin. They’re both good at keeping up appearances, both for their two young sons and for people outside the family. However, Leon is now 30, in the final year of a big-money contract with the Cougars, and after missing a season due to injury he lost his starting job to Harris. He’s frustrated with trying to find his place on the team for the first time in years, and it’s carried over to his home life. He and Robin argue because he doesn’t believe she’s giving enough respect to his frustration with the team, while she feels like he’s hiding information from her, such as his meetings with an attractive female television journalist (played by Thea Andrews, an actual journalist who should’ve known better than to blur lines by portraying a character who would be revealed to have poor boundaries and shoddy ethics).

The arguments escalate until, in a rage that Robin doesn’t want to move after nearly a decade in one place, he hits her and shoves her down a short flight of stairs. He knows he’s messed up, but Robin’s split lip and injured wrist will hang over every subsequent event.

The show does a brilliant job of maintaining a tough balance. Leon presents himself as a righteous man, a respected veteran team leader, while also we also see plainly that what respect he’s earned on the team doesn’t come from his righteousness or goodness, but from his ability to produce on the field. At one point, after Leon discovers that Robin has told a friend and a Child Protective Services representative about him hitting her, he threatens her with shame, saying she would only be remembered as a victim if she let more people know.

Later, after Leon has publicly admitted hitting his wife, he and linebacker Eric Olczyk walk into the locker room together, discussing Leon’s situation. Eric suggests that Leon ought to follow the Jason Kidd playbook: publicly admitting he’d hit his wife is good, and may actually help him garner a new contract, to which Leon chuckles.

At at least two other points in the season, Leon physically attacks teammates, once punching Eric because Robin went to his home to spend time away from him, and once going after Demetrius in the weight room in front of assembled media. This all comes to a head when the state decides to press charges, and Leon finds himself trying to explain that he’s not a violent person.

The show gives an extra twist of the knife by having Leon’s lawyer inform him that prosecutors may ask the judge to rule on the relevance of the time when he was 15 years old and beat his stepfather nearly to death for abusing his mother. Of course it isn’t relevant and it should be expunged from his record, but, as the lawyer says, the judge has to see it to rule on it.

Finally, at the end, there’s yet another shocker. If, by this point, you haven’t concluded that Leon is a fraud, Eric discovers that a few years before, Leon paid a fixer to make arrangements for a child he had out of wedlock when he was 18 years old. Leon says he didn’t know about the child until she was already six years old, when he was about to marry Robin, and he hasn’t told Robin about his daughter. Leon insists he pays to make sure they’re taken care of, and he hears the girl has a devoted stepfather. But, of course, as Eric says to his face, the one thing that girl needs more than anything his his time and presence, which Leon refuses to give because he couldn’t tell Robin the truth.

Harris told us in the first episode: “When you’re a playmaker, the rules don’t apply.” It was obvious he was talking about himself, but the best thing Playmakers does is use Leon to show how that principle is internalized and plays out over time for a league veteran. Furthermore, it uses the audience’s cultural training against us. Leon reads as a good guy because he has all the attributes of a good teammate and everyone on the team acts as if he’s a good person — except his actions run contrary.

He physically attacks his teammates multiple times. He hits his wife. He distances himself from any substantive opinion when asked if he could play with a gay teammate, and then when the team tries to place a player on the injured reserve list because they suspect he may be gay, Leon, in his role as player union representative, counsels the player to go along with it to make everything go away. He does little to nothing to help any other player on the team because he’s deeply selfish. And that selfishness extends to how he handled his firstborn child.

Ultimately, we’re left with the unsettling question, dramatized for us across 11 episodes: Is this just how Leon is, or did football make him this way? His sense of self is so closely associated with football, the answer may be a distinction without a difference.

(Photo: Russell Hornsby [left] as Leon Taylor, and Omar Gooding [right] as Demetrius Harris.)