HBO's Hard Knocks doesn't tell the whole truth about the NFL.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 29 2008 4:55 PM

The NFL's Reality Check

HBO's Hard Knocks is spectacularly entertaining, but it doesn't tell the whole truth about the NFL.

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Which brings us to Hard Knocks. It's got plenty of old-school NFL Films style: the deep-throated, apocalyptic narration (by actor Liev Schreiber), the orchestral mood music (by in-house composer David Robidoux), the terrifying body slams and wistful long shots (including one that makes the inside of a practice bubble look like an Arctic landscape), and, of course, the melodramatic writing ("A football team is like a tree. Branches may grow in all directions but the roots—the roots are bound together."). But the new style is evident, too: brief scenes, quick cuts, and a jagged editing style borrowed from reality TV.

The Cowboys pose a particular challenge. Hard Knocks has to accommodate popular interest in a passel of stars, including the attention-surplus-disorder-suffering T.O.—who actually presents as less an egomaniacal superstar than a funny, savvy, and driven teammate—the starlet-dating quarterback Tony Romo, and the redemption-seeking reprobates Terry "Tank" Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones. The team's owner, Jerry Jones, is everywhere: addressing team meetings, informing a wide receiver that a teammate is being released, gobbling popcorn with Peter King. Then there are the jock-sniffing celebrities who make the short drive north from Los Angeles to Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys train: a chunky Magic Johnson lecturing players about preparation, Rob Lowe in a cap pulled low as if to avoid paparazzi, Dennis Miller engaging in the sort of fan-boy bloviating that makes players roll their eyes. "How's Felix? How's the jets? He look fast?" Miller asks Jerry Jones about rookie running back Felix Jones. "I think he's one of the most talented players we've had," the owner answers with sober authority. Oh, brother.

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Hard Knocks nods at but doesn't bow before the stars—the first Jessica Simpson sighting doesn't come until Week 4—which lets the show develop the plot points that actually make training camp interesting. The most compelling stories, naturally, involve people you've never heard of—veterans on the verge of getting released, rookies struggling to adjust, blowhard coaches taking their jobs way too seriously. This is where NFL Films has always excelled: in elevating the mundane reality of pro football to inspirational heights. Training camp, truth be told, is numbingly dull and repetitive. But by the fourth episode, we're swept up by the story of rookie wide receiver Todd Lowber, a converted basketball player trying to convince the coaches he has the skills to play pro football. We want scrappy wideout Danny Amendola to defy the odds, too. We want the speechifying, Princeton-educated Garrett brothers, both offensive coaches, to be drowned in a training-room ice tub.

NFL Films has always favored emotion over information. "We'd rather make you feel than make you think," Steve Sabol told me this week. "I always looked on football in dramaturgical terms. It wasn't so much the outcome as the struggle, the way the game is played. That's really what Hard Knocks is."

In writing my book about training camp with the Broncos, I enjoyed access similar to NFL Films' ubiquitous cameras. I also had some operational advantages, benefiting from the relative intimacy of the notepad, the long lead time of a book vs. a weekly TV show, and, significantly, the reportorial freedom of being a league outsider. As I dressed and trained with the players day after day, they began to see me more as a teammate than a journalist. They confided to me how much they hate the institution of the NFL—the infantilizing treatment by coaches and executives, the culture of pressure, paranoia, pain, and insecurity. You won't hear that on Hard Knocks, where players are almost invariably serious and hard-working. "Most veterans loathe the daily grind," Liev Schreiber intones, "but not Owens." The NFL as Lake Wobegon.

"A camera can be a creator of myth but it can also be an instrument of realism," Sabol told me. "We're right on that fence." On Hard Knocks, the realism lurks between the hash marks. In one scene, safety Roy Williams reveals the players' dim view of their bosses after one compliments him. "I'm sure the coaches will find something to say," he sniffs. (Sure enough—and credit to NFL Films for showing it—we cut to a staff meeting where a coach criticizes Williams for reacting too slowly on a play.) In another scene, a Cowboys personnel executive sizes up a rookie like a blue-ribbon steer at the county fair. "Look at this," he says. "We're gonna have some fun with him, aren't we?" I also could read the subtext of a sideline comment by Tank Johnson as fans filled a stadium for a preseason game. "These people are here because they love my job," he exults. "And boy, I love it, too." Translation: Players really do enjoy the actual games. It's everything else they can live without.

Nothing on Hard Knocks has evoked my summer with the Broncos more than the scenes in which assistant coach John Garrett mercilessly rides a second-round draft pick named Martellus Bennett—to make him a better tight end, of course. "I feel like a mule," Bennett tells the camera. "A donkey back in the day when they didn't have tractors plowing the field." I got chills when I heard that, because I remembered Tony Scheffler, also a big tight end chosen in the second round, who was berated by a coach until he questioned whether the NFL was worth the emotional pain. I knew Martellus Bennett was suffering far more than he could admit.

Yes, Hard Knocks has some heavy-handed writing and an institutional blind spot. (Sometimes simultaneously. "In the NFL, there are small sins and there are big ones," the narrator says right after a scene involving Pacman Jones. "A dropped pass is a big one." And committing multiple criminal acts is a small one?) But that's part of the fun, so long as you realize what you're watching. Hard Knocks reinforces the mythic images of pro football that NFL Films has so masterfully created and then—intentionally or not—punctures them. It's even willing to poke fun at itself. In the second episode, a few Cowboys gleefully re-enact, in learned NFL Films slo-mo, the scene that the producers chose to begin their series: T.O. jogging and skipping rocks on the beach.

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