This year's installment of HBO's football reality show Hard Knocks opens with a long shot of the Pacific Ocean, waves breaking on the footprint-scarred beach. "1 DAY BEFORE TRAINING CAMP" flashes on the screen. From the left, a solitary runner emerges. He's African-American, topless, wearing knee-length white shorts. Cut to a close-up, and we see the numeral 81 on the shorts, bouncing pecs, and iPod wires.
I guess it's possible that, on his final day off before the monthlong slog of training camp, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens chose to race through the sand and skip rocks in the surf, and the cameras just happened to tag along. But I doubt it. To paraphrase a line from Diner, I've been to California a hundred times and I've never seen T.O. running on the beach.
That clichéd opening scene has been followed by many more in the series' first four episodes: a veteran tight end changing his baby's diaper, a quarterback coaching kids in his Wisconsin hometown, the owner's grandson getting taped up and dunked in a garbage pail full of ice. Nevertheless, Hard Knocks, which concludes Wednesday, is the best behind-the-scenes examination of football's summer ritual that we've ever seen on a screen, or could ever hope to see—a month of struggle, exhilaration, and anxiety crafted into five 50-minute packages. It's terrific entertainment, but it's not journalism.
First-time viewers might have reason to expect otherwise. After all, HBO is home to the acclaimed newsmagazine Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and Bob Costas' thoughtful interview show Costas Now. But Hard Knocks is produced by the NFL's in-house propaganda arm, NFL Films, which for the past five decades has been charged with buffing the league's Lombardi-esque image of toughness and heroism. The NFL of NFL Films is a world of slow-motion spirals nestling into the arms of graceful wide receivers, bone-crushing tackles by snarling linebackers, and exasperated coaches chewing out players for on-field misdemeanors. The unpleasant realities of football are for others to address—others like Real Sports, which in the past two years has investigated the NFL's controversial pension and disability programs, the epidemic ofconcussions among players, and the rise of alcohol consumption at stadiums.
NFL Films has never pretended to produce journalism. In the first season of Hard Knocks, 2001, the league's studio paid several Baltimore Ravens players as much as $8,000 to cooperate. The president of HBO Sports, Ross Greenburg, didn't learn about the payments until he read about them in a newspaper; he told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times that the network was "uncomfortable" with the arrangement and doubted whether it would do the show again if players were paid. A year later, Hard Knocks went to Dallas, and Greenburg said he was no longer concerned about the payments: "I can't come up with a journalistic reason not to pay them."
There were plenty, of course, and NFL Films hasn't paid players appearing in the two subsequent series. (After a five-year hiatus, Hard Knocks returned to profile the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007 and the Cowboys this year.) What Greenburg should have said was that HBO was willing to look the other way because NFL Films delivers hypnotic sounds and pictures, and the show burnishes the reputation of both entities. That's been the goal since topcoat salesman Ed Sabol, who had been taking motion pictures of his son's football games, offered the NFL $3,000 to film its championship game in 1962. Three years later, the league's 14 team owners bought the company for $12,000 apiece. Sabol was assigned to shoot every game and make a highlight film for each team at season's end. His son, Steve, now 65, still runs the business today.
For many men, NFL Films is the soundtrack of their childhood. When I hear one of its familiar orchestral scores, I am a 10-year-old boy eating a Swanson's TV dinner while watching last weekend's highlights narrated by John Facenda's Oz-like baritone. More than 30 years later, in 2006, I would be the subject of an NFL Films segment myself, about my summer as a training-camp placekicker with the Denver Broncos. (Full disclosure: An NFL Films producer and longtime acquaintance, who worked on the first two episodes of the current Hard Knocks, helped to arrange the segment and secure the use of footage for photos in my book.)
While there aren't enough trumpets, trombones, and violins in the world to make my field goals look majestic, my 5 minutes and 40 seconds of filmic gridiron glory was emblematic of the crossroads facing NFL Films. The sportswriter-turned-kicker segment appeared on the league-owned NFL Network, which favors shorter, faster-paced, time-sensitive material—that is, conventional sports television—potentially at the expense of the ruminative, elegantly composed films on which NFL Films built its reputation. The old style isn't dead; NFL Films is producing a second season of its Sports Emmy-winning series America's Game. But new fare also includes a weekly top-10 show. One sportswriter recently remarked that having NFL Films crank out highlights for the league's cable channel and Web site is "like having Picasso paint 'Dogs Playing Poker.' "