ESPN canceled “Playmakers” after one season Wednesday, in part because the NFL considered the show offensive and an unfair representation of the league.

The show focused on a fictional team and featured plots that included drug use, marital infidelity, racism and homophobia. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had expressed concerns that “Playmakers” was one-dimensional and perpetuated racial stereotypes.

ESPN is paying the NFL $4.8 billion over eight seasons for the rights to Sunday night games.

“Many considerations went into this decision, not the least of which was the reaction from a longtime and valued partner,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production.

Still, Shapiro said the NFL did not pressure the network to cancel the show. “Nobody charts our programming future but us,” he said.

The network’s partnership with the NFL continues Sunday night, when ESPN will televise the Pro Bowl.

“Now we can all move on,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

“Playmakers” drew praise from some critics, and its 11 episodes were watched by an average of 2 million people each Tuesday night, five times the ratings the network drew for that time slot the previous year. ESPN had aired a variety of shows in the time slot, including NFL Films, original programming like “Sports Reporters II” and even a college football game between Miami and Marshall.

Along with the praise, “Playmakers” drew criticism from players. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp refused to do interviews with ESPN, although he subsequently did several. By the end of the season, however, there were reports that players approached the network to inquire about roles on the show.

NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw said the union didn’t like the show in part because of what it felt was the stereotyping of black players. He also disagreed with ESPN’s strategy of promoting “Playmakers” during broadcasts of NFL games.

The brouhaha over the show was not the only time ESPN stirred up controversy during the season. Radio host Rush Limbaugh resigned as a commentator on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown,” after suggesting that Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because he is black.

Another TV-NFL conflict came during the halftime show of the Super Bowl, when Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, revealing her breast to a national audience watching on CBS. Tagliabue called it “offensive, embarrassing to us and our fans, and inappropriate.”

As for “Playmakers,” Shapiro said ESPN proved it could produce a viable fictional sports drama that appealed to critics and viewers. To go ahead with a second season, he said, would be “rubbing it in the faces of our most important client.”

The network has several shows in development, Shapiro said, and hopes to announce plans for a new series within the next few months. ESPN has also produced several TV movies – including an adaptation of the nonfiction book “A Season on the Brink” about Bob Knight. There’s no guarantee, however, that ESPN won’t run into the same problem again.

“It’s a fine line to walk because we’re producing dramas on sports in which many of them are partners with us,” he said. “It’s getting your partner to understand and accept that it’s not a reflection” of their league.

AP-ES-02-04-04 1807EST



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