'PLAYMAKERS' LANDS IN THE END ZONE

It was a critical hit and a ratings winner, so ESPN has canceled its football drama "Playmakers." The show had vexed ESPN since it debuted in August, when the NFL complained the program dwelled too much on fictive players' drug abuse, extramarital sex, homophobia--the stuff you read about in the sports pages but which somehow looks worse on TV. ESPN insists it didn't sacrifice its hit show (and its first scripted series) because the NFL might not renew its contract with the network. "If we had caved to the NFL, we would not have launched the series in the first place," says ESPN's Mark Shapiro. "We did not have a gun to our head." But Shapiro admits that complaints from team owners and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't help. "We're not in the business of antagonizing our partners, and clearly we've done that here," Shapiro says. "Had we not antagonized the NFL so deeply, most likely we would have brought this series back."

That's not much consolation for the show's creator, John Eisendrath. "This is an example of censorship that in my recollection has never happened before, though I admire ESPN for essentially admitting that the show was canceled because it upset one of its most important business partners," Eisendrath says. And, believe it or not, ESPN plans to produce more scripted dramas. "We're going to have to find the balance of being gritty and provocative, while realizing that a story line may draw comparisons to our other partners," says Shapiro. Is such a balance even possible? "We're going to have to walk a fine line," he admits. Among the projects ESPN is considering: a basketball drama created by Spike Lee. And we know how uncontroversial he is.