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Havin' a Ball: Countdown to Kick-Off
A steady diet of pigskin is about to pile up on your plate. A few thoughts on how the pro game is depicted, on and off the gridiron.
We've pointed out before that the NFL pushes its billion dollar product 365 days a year. Millions get caught up in that hype. The rest of us react with a sense of satisfaction in August, that the endless off-season chatter is done, and exhibition games are finally here. Yeah, after the first quarter or two the games are a slow, uninteresting exercise in player evaluation, with the possibility of career threatening injury hovering like the Goodyear Blimp.
To further whet appetites, and to catch viewers up before its Season 4 premiere, HBO has been running Ballers marathons. That's the series starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Rob Corddry as sports financial managers, operating out of Miami, focusing on NFL talent.
It is fictional entertainment but made with the permission to use NFL logos and properties. Ballers is ostensibly a comedy, but it may well be a mirror on the realities surrounding pro football, its owners, its players and their world.
This is a big switch from 14 years ago when ESPN aired an original drama, Playmakers, with many of the same themes, sans the humor. It was well received by critics, but ESPN abandoned the series under cloudy circumstances. It was implied, at the time, that the NFL did not like Playmakers' depiction of what went on in pro football locker rooms. The show went away, quietly.
Not so, Ballers. Oh! The debauchery! The orgies! The millions and millions of dollars at stake! The recreational drugs, ostentatious living, adultery and miscegenation! Players and their posses reaping the benefits of their talents before being maimed — the risk at hand for every man on the field.
Created by Stephen Levinson, produced by Levinson, Johnson, Mark Wahlberg (Entourage), Peter Berg and others, the show packs a wallop. The brutality of football, the Neo-Roman lifestyle, the wealth, street ethos and unbridled hedonism that would have made Hugh Hefner beat a path for the confessional.
It's inherently watchable, if you love football. It's not that kind of series, but I can't help but wonder what a flashback episode would be like. A Half-hour that casts a retro-eye on what life was like for ballers in the late 1950's and early '60's--before a TV deal with CBS let NFL teams share the wealth, and put the league on course to its present status as one of the biggest businesses in the world.
Imagine similar characters, dealing with low pay and second jobs. The segregation of accommodations and the racial quotas. Playing in ramshackle baseball stadiums and college fields with less than green grass. A style of play that allowed hits and blocks now illegal; medical attention that was absolutely primitive and … the equipment. The late Johnny Unitas described going to an equipment manager in his rookie season and asking for an athletic supporter. The old man pointed to a pile of used jock-straps, stacked in the corner of the room.
There'd be women, booze, amphetamines. That hasn't changed. The money has.
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