Given how touchy the NFL can be about how it is portrayed (see ESPN’s Playmakers, which got a little too real for the Shield’s liking and was canceled), it will be interesting to see how HBO’s new comedy series Ballers fares. While it is billed as a comedy, and can be very funny, it also touches on matters that aren’t humorous, particularly the financial problems that can affect the non-superstars of the league, as well as the health concerns that every player has a risk of facing. And, perhaps most egregiously to the NFL, the show is using real team names and logos in its storylines.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays former pro footballer Spencer Strasmore (the series actually begins with clips of Johnson’s own college football career; his NFL prospects were dashed by an injury). Nowadays, Spencer is a financial planner, although we learn his own personal finances aren’t as stable as he would like people to think. Therefore, he is desperate to make it at his firm, and his coworker (a hilarious Rob Corddry) keeps pressuring Spencer to reach out to his football contacts as potential clients. Spencer isn’t so sure he wants to “monetize his friends,” but eventually, he finds a way of doing so through his genuine concern for them, and his not wanting them to make the same financial mistakes he made. He becomes a sort of mentor, along with financial planner, to them, working with their agents to keep them out of trouble.
But we also learn that finances aren’t the only troubles Spencer keeps masked from his friends behind his impeccable suit (which is custom-made, we are regularly reminded). We see Spencer suffering from troubled sleep and nightmares, and surreptitiously taking some sort of meds. His girlfriend eventually refers him to a neurologist, so it seems likely that Ballers will also at least somewhat address the issue of brain injuries among football players.
While it doesn’t use actual personalities in depicting team coaches and general managers, at least from the episodes I’ve seen, Ballers does use actual franchises (in the opener, a star wide receiver is cut by the Packers for an off-field issue, and the Dolphins are largely featured), and NFL star Victor Cruz turns up in one episode. Given that these are apparently being used without the NFL’s consent — a far cry from HBO’s earlier comedy series about pro football, 1st & Ten, which used made-up monikers like the California Bulls — it will be interesting to see how the league reacts. Maybe the fact of the show’s lighter touch versus something like Playmakers, anchored by Johnson’s winning and bankable personality, will help make the NFL more agreeable to the show. Of course, with no real ties to the NFL as ESPN had, aside from the Hard Knocks series, perhaps HBO can also afford to be more daring. Personally, I think the use of names, logos and personalities lends a nice reality to the program, and given the terrible PR hits the NFL has taken over the past few years, it would be nice to see it be able to at least acknowledge its shortfalls, even in a fictional format.
Ballers airs on HBO Sundays at 10pm ET/PT beginning June 21.
Dwayne Johnson and John David Washington in “Ballers”: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO