While one can understand why HBO Sports’ “State of Play” would kick off (as it were) with an hour featuring high-profile NFL stars adjusting to life after football, it’s the second episode of this Peter Berg produced-and-hosted series, about two paralyzed athletes, that sticks with you. Charged with exploring sports beyond the spotlight of the field, there’s a hit-miss quality to these second-season episodes, but the show remains noteworthy for its ambition and spare storytelling style, offering some much-needed, understated perspective to a world of hyperventilating sports coverage that invariably seems to be more interested in cranking up the volume.
Once again, each hour consists of a 35-minute documentary, followed by a round-table discussion, presided over by Berg, that’s related to the topic.
The premiere, however, takes an interesting premise – profiling former stars Brett Favre and Tiki Barber, and lesser luminary Wayne Chrebet, about the wave of emotions that followed their retirement – and mucks it up with what feels like psychobabble about the pursuit of happiness. Self-servingly included are Michael Strahan (who shares a producing credit on this installment of the show) and ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who provided inspiration for the Berg-directed movie “Lone Survivor.”
Although there’s some good information buried within the documentary – the high divorce rates and lack of regimentation and routine once a professional career ends – the hour feels unfocused, and the panel discussion, which seeks to expand to a more general, Oprah-like “Live your best life” theme, is a waste of time.
Fortunately, the Nov. 25 edition, subtitled “Broken,” more than redeems the concept, focusing on a mountain biker, Steve Shope, and college football player, Eric LeGrand, who were both paralyzed – the first in a riding accident, the latter on the field. This window into their lives proves alternately heartbreaking and inspiring, with Shope openly discussing his initial desire to die (his wife wouldn’t assist him in that endeavor), while LeGrand relies on care from his mother.
“Every time I dream, I’m never in a wheelchair,” LeGrand says.
Berg is also especially good in leading the discussion about those who become paraplegic, and what people don’t know about their conditions – or about the responsibilities shouldered by their families.
Upcoming segments in this latest four-episode order will feature what the NFL is doing to make the game safer, and the relationship between sports figures and their spouses.
Along with ESPN’s “30 for 30,” programs like “State of Play” and Bryant Gumbel’s “Real Sports” speak to the larger recognition of how sports is woven into the fabric of our lives, and the need for coverage that gets past the myopic concentration on who’s winning or losing.
Not that this sort of project will ever be a rival to the action on the field in terms of popularity. But with such a wide world of sports out there, it’s nice to see there’s a place in the game for something as sober, and at times sobering, as “State of Play.”