The CW’s upcoming football drama “All American,” based on the real-life experiences of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, offers a lot of opportunity to dive into topical storytelling, from tales of race and class, to the divide over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, getting special treatment and locker room culture.
“We’re trying not to be too preachy out of the gate, but yes [we’re dealing in those things],” showrunner April Blair tells Variety.
The third episode of the show, which centers on Spencer, an African-American high school football player from South Central Los Angeles, Calif. who gets the opportunity to play for a Beverly Hills high school, will be an “issue show” which deals with racism. But at the center of it is not just Spencer (Daniel Ezra) but also his new teammate Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and their coach Billy (Taye Diggs), who also happens to be Jordan’s father.
“Jordan [is] grappling with the fact that as a biracial child he doesn’t feel like he really belongs in the black world or the white world or is accepted by either,” Blair says. “It’s an episode about that where, driving home with Spencer, he gets pulled over for driving while black, and for the first time in his life really experiences what it’s like to be a black man in America.”
Spencer will have the conversation with Billy about how he did not give his son the talk “that every black family has with their son. “And he says, ‘I thought I could protect him from that. He’s lighter, we live in a different community,'” Blair reveals. “But you can’t protect them. So we do those episodes. We go there.”
The character of Billy, who was a former football player himself, lends itself to other important pieces of storytelling, says Blair, including serving as an example of how not all kids groomed for success will go on to have a Tom Brady-sized career. And, she points out, “it’s a very big issue when black men in their community become successful and marry white women,” which Billy did, and which the show will touch on in the fifth episode. “They call it ‘Living the OJ life’ and it’s a thing and it’s a hot button topic,” she says. “We have these preconceptions, and we want to deconstruct them.”
Blair is still working out exactly how to bring into the show things like “take a knee” and the locker room culture that has bred so much sexual misconduct among professional athletes.
“A lot of the issues in the NFL don’t necessarily translate to high school,” she admits. But one area she plans to touch on is recruiting, because she feels “athletes getting some sort of dispensation is completely unacceptable.”
“All of the football doubles we use for our guys were real players, and the stories they talk about with recruiting, it’s crazy what they do to woo these kids,” she says. “It feels very scandalous.”
Similarly, Blair says they are “still trying to figure out what an ‘All American’ version of a ‘take the knee’ episode is,” but that it would most likely be told through Billy, rather than Spencer or Jordan.
“I don’t necessarily agree with politicizing children who want college careers,” she says. “It’s not a policy, but I’ve been researching it and a lot of the schools don’t have the kids go out onto the field during the anthem because they don’t want to put them in that position. These are kids that have to apply to college, and it could affect their standing, and you don’t want to put them in a difficult position when they’re too young to understand the consequences or have peer pressure. So I think it would be better told through the adult lens.”