I sometimes wonder what we’re really missing out on, as fans, by having an incomplete knowledge of what’s going on internally with the teams we follow. Every sports league, each time it gives us a new level of access to the sausage-making, trumpets the fact that it’s allowing us to see The NFL As It Really Is, or whatever. Sometimes these gimmicks give us insight and sometimes they don’t. I don’t know what the point of those in-huddle segments coming out of commercial breaks of NBA games accomplish, since all they serve to illuminate is that Gregg Popovich would prefer his players not leave Thabo Sefolosha wide open at the three-point line. The NFL’s Sound FX segments are intermittently compelling, but mostly reveal football players spend a lot of time either cussing out or congratulating each other, which is something one could surmise without audio.
Then there’s “Hard Knocks,” HBO’s training camp reality show, which is a mixed bag in terms of how much it enlightens and entertains us. There are moments of clarity, when you understand why the show exists, like when Rex Ryan is telling his team, “I demand that we have fun,” but there are also ponderous spans of time where we’re just watching a bunch of physical aberrations running drills and trying to keep their heads down. It can be a very dull show if certain personalities don’t make themselves known, and it often is, because why, if you were an NFL player or coach, would you bother to be interesting, or let the outside world know that you are?
The NFL announced last year that it has the ability to compel teams to participate in “Hard Knocks.” The guidelines for this make it pretty clear that it’s a punishment, of sorts: Teams that have made the playoffs in the last two seasons, have new coaches or have been on “Hard Knocks” before are exempt from Roger Goodell and company forcing them to be on a television show of which they want no part. Bruce Arians recently said that he would fight the NFL “tooth and nail” if they tried to send HBO camera crews to his training camp. A team hasn’t yet been coerced into being on the show, probably because it brings national exposure that’s good for a franchise’s brand, which means there are several owners each season willing to do it, but it’s hard to imagine any coach besides maybe the media-loving Ryan being happy about his squad being put under a microscope.
I’ve been leafing through Nate Jackson’s “Slow Getting Up” recently, and one of the things Jackson isn’t shy about relating is that being an NFL player — and, one imagines, being a professional athlete in general — is painfully boring. Much of your day-to-day is silently sitting in meeting rooms and being out on the practice field trying to train your body to make specific movements that you can then employ on Sunday. Some of the book is engrossing because it takes the reader into a sphere they are not otherwise allowed to inhabit, but it’s hardly Bill Buford’s “Heat,” where you find out that some kitchens are profane, colorful communities unto themselves, and successful chefs can be fascinatingly dysfunctional people. Rather, locker rooms and coaches’ offices are grimly functional. Unless you’re the type of person who likes to break down all-22 film and understand schemes, game plan meetings aren’t something that will hold your attention. It’s not surprising to learn that being an NFL player is not at all like being in real-life Madden.
We all watch sports differently and for different reasons, but the more leagues and teams let me in, the more I find the most interesting part of a given sport are the games themselves, which are abstract and therefore something to which I can apply my imagination. There is a perpetual push-and-pull between fans and teams, where we want to know more and the teams want us to know less — or at least, they don’t want to be bothered as they go about their jobs — but is there really that much more to know, and would we even want the information if it were freely available? I suppose the popularity of “Hard Knocks” and athlete tell-alls give us something like an answer to that question, but for me, less is sometimes more. Gaps in understanding can be harmful in other arenas, but in terms of being a fan, it can save you from tedium.