Against the high-gloss perfection of towering condominiums, sprawling mansions, and European roadsters, the title sequence of “Ballers” sets homemade footage of athletic prowess: from rapid-fire footwork and superhuman vertical leaps, the glamorous world of professional sports is born. It’s an inspirational, or least aspirational, notion, the belief that talent, hard work, and the love of the game can square space “at the top,” as Lil Wayne says, where “only heaven is right above it.” It’s also, unfortunately, a lie.
Fantasies of sex, wealth, and status are the stock-in-trade of “Ballers,” from “Entourage” executive producer Stephen Levinson, and its polished excess suggests as much. A collection of music video set pieces loosely linked by the stuff of Deadspin blind items and dry dispatches from SportsBusiness Journal, the series elicits the same response as a car commercial: a faint pang of want, first for the product itself and then for the sales pitch to end. “Ballers” severs aspiration from inspiration until all that’s left is a raging hard-on for consumption; it has, to paraphrase “True Detective” crime boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), blue balls of the heart.
The problem is that the phenomenon, though real, is easily remedied, yet “Ballers”—like “True Detective” and the network’s toothless foreign affairs satire, “The Brink,” the other entries in what Salon TV critic Sonia Saraiya calls “HB-bro”—relies on the most predictable symbols of male desire to propel the narrative. “Ballers,” despite fleeting glimpses of the National Football League’s systemic failures, ultimately prefers to appeal to a baser instinct, that slightly sweaty funk of social and sexual entitlement. After all, blue balls are the bro’s Waterloo. To not get off is the physical manifestation of masculinity thwarted, aching, unsatisfied, the surest sign of his defeat.
Though “Ballers” stars the magnetic Dwayne Johnson as retired football player and novice financial advisor Spencer Strasmore, then, its perspective is closer kin to Spencer’s desperately out-of-touch colleague, Joe (Rob Corddry). A pasty, paunchy wannabe surrounded by the younger, richer, more muscular athletes that comprise his clientele, Joe is ostensibly on the receiving end of the joke, but “Ballers” shares his near-religious devotion to the pleasure principle. Though the series gestures at the complications of life after football, it directs most of its energies toward the “boatin’, booze, and boobs” wet dreams of those who never played.
The result is an effort to please fans that ultimately does them a disservice, for the most obvious beneficiary of “Ballers” is the NFL itself. Run through with enough realism to suggest an honest assessment—Spencer, for instance, faces the prospect of long-term neurological damage from his injuries—the series in fact papers over the league’s institutional negligence with boys-will-be-boys nonchalance. Even in the midst of an ongoing concussion crisis, a frankly dispiriting approach to player domestic abuse, and controversies over racist team names and public funding for stadiums, the NFL remains the most lucrative, impregnable feature of the American cultural landscape. It deserves more critics, not fewer.
“Ballers,” of course, has no obligation to fulfill this role, and were it simply a cocaine-fueled paean to its characters’ penises it would merit no further discussion. But the series actively cultivates the impression that it cuts to the quick, only to abandon this tactic when critical thinking might interrupt the fun.
When Ricky’s forced to pay obeisance to his new coach, for example, receiving a scolding about his “bad life choices” in the process, the series seems poised to scrutinize the fact that white men dominate the leadership of a sport largely dependent on the skills of black athletes—yet “Ballers” pursues a lame gag in which Joe uses a racial slur and gets tossed in the harbor instead. When the affable Charles Greane (Omar Miller) receives unsolicited sexts, the series appears ready to satirize the sexual temptations of fame—yet “Ballers,” in which the most prominent female speaking role is the sports reporter (Taylor Cole) sleeping with Spencer, couldn’t pass the Bechdel test if it were directed by Virginia Woolf.
In the end, “Ballers” fails sports fans by reproducing, rather than challenging, our most common response to the institutions that determine the rules of the game. We condemn the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse scandals, or FIFA’s rampant corruption, and then watch in record numbers. We claim to want to the truth and then embrace the lie. Until the intransigence of the major sports’ governing bodies begins to threaten the bottom line, this state of affairs is unlikely to change, and “Ballers” blithely embodies the troubling disconnect between what we say we love about sports and what we know about how sports actually operate. Why spoil the party?
“Ballers,” recently renewed for a second season, airs Sundays at 10pm on HBO.