Gridiron giants who take steroids, sleep around, and kowtow to a villainous owner? It's not the NFL, but the league is afraid you might think so. Though ESPN's prime-time football soap, ''Playmakers,'' drew more than 2 million viewers during its rookie seasona bone-crushing threefold increase over last year's time-slot average the network has yet to renew. Why? Industry folk speculate that, in a situation reminiscent of CBS' recent ''Reagans'' flap, the sports channel is considering benching the gritty show because the NFL threw a penalty flag.
League officials wouldn't comment for this story, but they have expressed concern that ''Playmakers'' tarnishes the NFL's image. (ESPN's contract to broadcast NFL games runs through '05.) And while the show's creator, John Eisendrath, hopes it won't be canceled, the net is listening. ''We understand [the league's] concerns,'' says Ron Semiao, senior VP of ESPN Original Entertainment. Still, you've got to wonder whether football fans would actually turn off NFL games just because of a drama series. ''I don't think that because of 'The Shield' people think every police department is on the take,'' says Semiao. ''It's fiction.'' Just call them the No Fiction League.