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.

Hard Knocks.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo

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.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

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.' "

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.

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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