This show has never felt quite right to me, because its plot lines are never surprising, and it never digs far into its characters’ souls. It feels like the sports version of Entourage, in that it’s designed to suck in male audiences by selling a dream of a bunch of friends getting rich(er) and famous(er) and laid (more often).
Previous storylines have been somewhat hard to believe. One player retires from the Dolphins’ offensive line and becomes the Rams’ general manager like three years later. (I guess this guy just skipped the years of sweating his nuts off as a college scout at Northwest Missouri State and West Texas A&M.)
Another time, The Rock just decides he wants to own an NFL team, fights about funding with some rich dudes, and gets approved by the league. Then The Rock turns down the chance, because he’s too nice to move the Raiders to Vegas.
I’ve stayed with the show anyway, because I’m too invested in The Rock’s success. But one of the themes of Season 4 is so impossible that even I — a card-carrying HBO stan who didn’t bat an eye when that Game of Thrones raven flew like 2,000 miles in less than a day — can’t let it pass.
The least realistic story on HBO right now is the college football recruiting subplot The Rock is living out on Ballers. Let me explain.
The Rock’s usual job is to run a financial management firm for athletes. This season, he’s relocated from Miami to LA. He and his business partner have purchased a sports media company. The company operates a tiny TV channel that almost nobody watches.
While in LA, The Rock becomes acquainted with a single mom named Jayda Crawford, whose son, Quincy, is a five-star QB and the biggest football recruit in the world. (His name’s not Quincy Carter, though that listing’s funny because there was a Georgia QB by that name.) The Rock becomes tight with the star recruit and starts referring to himself as Quincy’s “uncle.”
The Rock, enterprising businessman, gets an idea. He decides to take control of Quincy’s recruitment. But instead of asking for petty cash or favors in exchange for the QB’s commitment, The Rock demands that hometown USC let The Rock’s media company purchase the broadcast rights to the Trojans’ games.
The whole plot is bonkers, for so many reasons.
Let me list them here.
1. USC not only can’t sell its media rights in exchange for a recruit. It can’t sell its media rights at all for at least six more years.
The show appears to be set in 2018. It makes various mentions of Donald Trump being president, Todd Gurley being an elite running back, and other 2018 things.
USC is in the Pac-12. Literally the biggest (only?) reason conferences exist in 2018 is so universities can pool together to get television deals. The USC has given the Pac-12 the rights to sell its games to TV. That deal doesn’t expire until 2024, at which point Quincy’s going to be long gone from whichever college he chooses.
“I want the Trojans’ TV rights,” The Rock tells the USC coach. “That conference deal was a bust, and I wanna build you guys your own TV network.”
USC already has its own TV network, basically, in localized coverage from the Pac-12 Network. (But the show is right that the Pac-12 Network is a bust, as any of the 16 fans who have actually watched the Pac-12 Network will tell you. This story would be even more outlandish if it weren’t this conference.)
2. Nothing else about the TV rights deal makes even a shred of sense.
- USC tells The Rock that USC’s media rights (which, again, USC is not in a position to sell) would cost The Rock $200 million over 10 years.
- So if USC took its media rights away from the Pac-12 (which, again, it can’t just do), it would be getting $20 million per year from The Rock.
- But the Pac-12 currently distributes more than $30 million per year to each of its schools for media rights. I guess USC wouldn’t mind losing $10-plus million per year (plus likely future increases in Pac-12 payouts) and risking massive NCAA sanctions so it could get ... three years of a five-star QB, the kind of player USC almost always has on its roster anyway?
- The Rock offers Quincy, a teenager, 10% of the value of the broadcast rights, which The Rock plans to sell in five years, after Quincy’s already in the NFL. How The Rock figures he’ll sell USC’s broadcast rights — something USC would definitely have a contract clause about, so The Rock couldn’t just sell them to whoever — isn’t cleared up.
- The Rock says Quincy’s 10% cut will be worth $50 million or $100 million in five years. So The Rock’s going to build a billion-dollar TV channel behind USC’s broadcast rights in five years. Good plan.
My mind hurts from typing all of this out.
3. No team is as bad at cheating as Ballers acts like USC is.
The NCAA has strict rules about how schools can publicize their recruitment of individual players. Let me excerpt and bold one:
A member institution shall not publicize (or arrange for publicity of) a prospective student-athlete’s visit to the institution’s campus. Further, a prospective student- athlete may not participate in team activities that would make the public or media aware of the prospective student-athlete’s visit to the institution (e.g., running out of the tunnel with team, celebratory walks to or around the stadium/arena, on-field pregame celebrations).
Now here is what fictional USC does for Quincy in Episode 6 of Season 4:
Why, yes, that’s a coordinated celebratory walk around the stadium for one recruit.
If I were USC, I would file a defamation lawsuit against Ballers for making it look like I’m stupid enough to commit such an overtly public violation.
In case Fake USC convinces the NCAA that wasn’t against the rules, the school then has two jets spell out a giant Q for Quincy right above the stadium.
I might be ignoring the most obvious problem with that scene. It’s not a game day, because a bunch of current USC players are in street clothes to meet Quincy and The Rock on the field. Or it’s really early on a game day, well before that many fans would be in the stands. So how did they get all those people into the stadium?
Later, USC’s current superstar QB is taking Quincy and The Rock on a tour of the team’s facilities. The Rock asks how the classes at the school are.
“Thankfully, I wouldn’t know,” the current QB says. The players have 24-hour access to tutors, who just do their papers, presentations, and “shit like that” for them. HBO acts like every school is 2000s North Carolina.
Still later, a student named Emma who doesn’t appear to work for the football program tells Quincy that she put together a welcome highlight tape the school played when greeting him. That could also be an NCAA violation, but more to the point, it just wouldn’t happen. College football teams have their own video departments.
(We can figure that Emma doesn’t work for the team because when we meet her, she’s putting up movie posters in the campus theater. I’m chuckling aloud at the idea of a major program giving its student staffers time for other extracurriculars during the season.)
4. Ballers’ conception of how recruiting visits work is nonsense.
When The Rock and Quincy get down to field level after USC gets done committing the first of its various NCAA violations here, they meet the fictional USC coach, Dan Davis.
“Damn glad to meet you, Quincy,” Davis tells him.
The first time a recruit of Quincy’s caliber meets a head coach is not after he’s walked through the stadium in front of thousands of people.
Any recruit that good is going to get advance Twitter DMs and phone calls from the head man. Quincy isn’t some two-star tight end USC invited to a junior day.
5. For some reason, the USC person negotiating with The Rock is Rodney Peete.
6. After the USC TV deal hits a snag, Quincy commits to Ohio State. The Rock convinces him to withdraw that pledge, but instead of having Quincy just tweet it out, The Rock visits Columbus himself.
He meets a fictional Ohio State assistant and gives him the bad news. Cool of The Rock to fly cross-country when Quincy could’ve just done this:
Also cool of The Rock to make clear to a program he’s spurning that he’s closely involved with the recruit, because Ohio State definitely won’t use that agains—
7. The Ohio State coach has Columbus police put The Rock in jail on sham drug charges. While he’s behind bars, a Buckeye booster visits The Rock and threatens to blackmail him if Quincy doesn’t “stay a Buckeye.”
It’s really not that serious.
8. The blackmailing OSU booster’s name is “Jimmy Dale Pritchett.”
This is supposed to be Ohio State, not Texas.
As the season progresses, the NCAA figures out what all these parties have been up to. Quincy loses his eligibility, and The Rock and the NCAA get into a legal battle. I guess those things are reasonable within the warped context the season sets up.
You’d expect better, given that The Rock played college football and former Illinois and Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is on the production team.
But there are two critical moments in the story that do make sense.
In one discussion, Quincy tells The Rock that he’s taken $10,000 payments in paper bags before from recruiters and agent types. That’s a lot closer to how actual college football player payments work.
Also, at one point, The Rock comments on the NCAA’s economic model:
“The whole goddamn system is a scam.”