Unwilling Participants

It seems that NFL teams' interest in Hard Knocks is waning. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

It seems that NFL teams' interest in Hard Knocks is waning. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

Hard Knocks is for NFL fans, not the show’s subjects. This is a simple and obvious thing, but it’s sometimes obscured by the fact that teams supposedly volunteer for it, as if “teams” means coaches (excepting Rex Ryan) and players as opposed to owners trying to increase their franchise’s brand visibility. The concept of distraction in sports is rightfully regarded with suspicion, but I think it’s fair to assume, if you could choose between being filmed while doing your job and not being filmed, most people would pick the option that doesn’t involve boom mics and cameramen. It would make working, at the very least, a little less awkward.

So it makes sense that the Browns — who have a new head coach, an owner who might be a crook and a hype-case rookie quarterback — would politely decline to have nearly every minute of their training camp documented by a 24-man crew. The NFL can compel teams that have missed the playoffs for two consecutive years to participate in the show, but ones with first-year coaches have veto power. In retrospect, firing Rob Chudzinski was a good decision – at least for Cleveland. For viewers, it means we’re being deprived of an All-Access Look™ at the league’s most outwardly dysfunctional franchise. If the primary function of a reality show is to provide us with something to gawk at, Hard Knocks couldn’t have done much better than the Browns.

According to reports of dubious veracity, several teams have expressed interest in being on the show this season, but I’m pretty sure that’s not true. We know it’s not the Steelers, because Mike Tomlin has said he won’t cooperate with Hard Knocks production crews. The Cardinals’ Bruce Arians feels the same way. The Giants and Jags are lukewarm. The Bears would prefer not to. The Bills are trying to find a new owner, so they don’t really have anyone to speak for them. The Rams’ Jeff Fisher doesn’t sound jazzed about it. The Raiders…well, actually, the Raiders might be down, because who ever knows what’s going on with them. It’s evident neither HBO nor the NFL’s administrative assistants are being bombarded by calls from teams that are eager to have their preseason drills and meetings put on TV. The owners presumably passed a rule that allows the league to force certain franchises to participate because they foresaw a season in which no one would want to do it. Perhaps this is that season.

I wrote a few months ago that I don’t find Hard Knocks extraordinarily edifying or interesting. That’s not an argument for it to not exist, since plenty of people like it just fine. But if teams don’t want to do it, we’re going to see an even more boring show. This is another simple and obvious thing: Players and coaches only tell us what they’re comfortable telling us, and a journalist needs his or her subject to be at least a little bit cooperative in order to produce a compelling story. If the entire league sees Hard Knocks as a nuisance more than an opportunity, the show is doomed to insipidness, no matter which team Roger Goodell forces in front of the cameras. That might not be the case, but it seems like we’re headed in that direction. And why wouldn’t we be? NFL teams are trying to get a lot of important work done in training camp. Our curiosity just gets in the way.

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