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How HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ is Hurting the NFL Even More Than They Know

How HBO's 'Hard Knocks' is Hurting the NFL Even More Than They Know

With another football season set to kickoff Thursday evening, the controversy overtaking the NFL remains at an all-time high. Deflategate be damned: Concussions and their long-term effects, combined with players’ bad behavior, have given the most-watched sports league in the United States a lingering black eye. So one would think attention would be paid to the matter, one way or another, in a documentary series inside the locker room of an NFL team.

To be fair, “Hard Knocks” has far too many ties with the league to be treated as the in-depth expose many fans crave. Most of it is light fun. The rest is superficially dramatic — fans already know who’s been cut and who made the team by the time the season finale airs. Yet even if we can accept that the only discussion of injuries relates to when they’ll get back on the field, “Hard Knocks” still isn’t doing the league any favors.

Changing History

Growing up in a football household, the emphasis was always put on the team over the players. Your hometown (or closest major city) was the priority in choosing who to root for on Sundays. It’s not a mandatory aspect of fandom, though; as long as you’re a vigilant supporter of “your” team and not a bandwagon jumper who switches every two or three years, it’s all good. The point of emphasis, though, was and is on being a fan of the team. I am, for instance, a Bears fan. No one person represents the team; not the owner, general manager, head coach or star player — though, oddly enough, the person who will be there the shortest amount of time (the player) is as close as you’ll come to an official representative. 

Instead of identifying with people, fans are called on to pledge their devotion to a uniform, color scheme and mythical presence known only as the “Chicago Bears” (or, “Da Bears,” if you will). As a kid, this seems fine. There are plenty of unidentifiable, complicated or inexplicable entities we’re called on to respect. But as an adult, it’s much, much harder.

It may start with one bad egg. Continuing with the Chicago Bears, my blind loyalty to the “team” began to falter in 2009 when “we” traded to obtain Jay Cutler as “our” starting quarterback. While some fans claimed to be excited over the deal at the time, the negotiation has now been accepted as one of the most colossal errors in team history. It lead to only one playoff appearance as well as the firing of the head coach and general manager, but moreover it brought on an unpredictably vehement hatred of one person. Jay Cutler — in part because his presence lead to a long-lasting and ill-conceived overhaul of the team — ended up usurping the team mentality in general. Suddenly, I wasn’t rooting for the Bears. I was rooting against Jay Cutler.

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Of course, I didn’t want to see the team lose, but I also knew its best chance of winning was without Cutler. During this period of personal turmoil, more and more of the media’s focus on football began to shift away from reporting the box scores. Words like “concussion” — which used to be treated as not-so-bad news during injury round-ups — and “depression” lead to a larger understanding of words like “neurodegenerative disease” and “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” Players that fans from my generation grew up loving — like All-Pro Junior Seau and Chicago Bears Super Bowl-winning QB Jim McMahon — were suddenly at risk because of the actions we cheered them on to perform. Instead of seeing these men as merely players doing what they must for a larger, folkloric “team,” focus began to shift toward seeing them as, well, men. 

The Soft Touch of ‘Hard Knocks’

In its own way, the NFL is fine with that. They’ve got enough likable personalities to put forth happy faces on charming athletes for sit-down interviews, commercials and various events. “Hard Knocks” certainly shows as much during its time with the Houston Texans. With one bonafide superstar in J.J. Watt — a player described simply as “a wall” — and another lovable personality in ex-New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the docu-series has plenty of footage meant to form a closer connection between the fans and the league’s stars.

We get to watch as Watt play bags (or cornhole, depending on where you live) with his family. Wilfork shoots hoops with his friends. Watt does a Chris Farley impression during practice. Wilfork gets into a field goal competition with an Olympic soccer player (Carli Lloyd). Watt signs autographs for everyone who attended training camp that day. Wilfork throws a football to an elephant, and the elephant catches it.

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These are endearing activities, but for every Watt and Wilfork the producers successfully establish as A-list human beings, there’s a Brian Cushing and a Kourtnei Brown ready to ruin it. Cushing — who was suspended after his rookie season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and thus had his Defensive Rookie of the Year award revoked — comes across as the bullying, sexist psychopath most non-sports fans (and others) associate with pro football players. “Hard Knocks” captures him repeatedly manhandling running back Alfred Blue during a blocking drill, taking personal offense at the smaller player’s inability to withstand a bull-rush he’s never meant to handle alone. “Cush” also makes sure to tell his teammates he doesn’t drink anything from Starbucks because “I realized I wasn’t a chick,” and says the following when asked if he’ll have another child: “I think we will. I just don’t want a girl.”

Brown, on the other hand, provides an equal dose of emotional devastation. Repeatedly characterized as a player who’s been cut six times in three years, Brown is struggling to make the roster. Who does and doesn’t make the team is the most reliable source of drama on “Hard Knocks,” but Brown’s silent absorption of all coaching (both angry and inspiring) make him appear on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout. You get the sense if this man doesn’t make the team, he may just drift off into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again. And in fact, in the season finale, Brown is cut. His dreams are dashed. He takes the news with a sigh and a shake of the head that conveys more sorrow than any drama on HBO. The series’ producers try to put a positive spin on it, as Brown was picked up to play for another team after Houston let him go, but there’s no reason to believe the same series of events won’t unfold next year.

By the end of “Hard Knocks,” there may be no escaping the transition from a league of teams to a league of players. We don’t like some athletes. We worry about the others. Even with happy, successful stars like Watt and Wilfork, the mind immediately jumps to how they’re really feeling inside or what might become of them in 10 or 15 years. How can we keep watching them play? What’s left to motivate us outside of a failing team concept and a general love for the game? When love is all that’s left, how long until reason wins out?

There’s a scene in the third episode when Watt tries to motivate his team after a practice: “The philosophy of this fucking squad is off-the-field we’re good fucking dudes. […] When you step on the field, you’re the baddest fucker on the planet, and together we’re the baddest fucking team on the planet.” It’s a thin line to walk — good and bad, player and person — especially when you see actual fisticuffs break out during a two-team scrimmage. Yet, much like football fans who are starting to worry about their favorite sport, “Hard Knocks” approaches the discussion without fully engaging with it. And that doesn’t help anybody.

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