- Hard Knocks (2001–2010)
Whether or not you are a fan, the National Football League (NFL)—in the United States and increasingly around the world—is difficult to avoid. Aside from dominating the American media landscape on autumn Sundays, the NFL—the country’s most visible and powerful sports brand—circulates through licensed apparel, sponsored public service announcements, and even children’s toys that bear the league’s imprimatur. Since Pete Rozelle’s election as NFL commissioner in 1959, the league has evidenced an obsessive preoccupation with the dual efforts to create a favorable institutional image and to disseminate that image as broadly as possible. These efforts are perhaps most clearly exemplified by the organization’s 1965 development of NFL Films, a subsidiary film production company that creates made-for-television nonfiction films that mythologize the league and its history. Soon after the company’s creation, NFL Films productions became a staple on television, establishing a valuable presence for the league beyond the Sunday broadcasts of its games. The company’s texts range from weekly highlight and magazine programs to feature-length documentaries about the league.
Aside from merely documenting the league, NFL Films productions fashion it into a thrilling and dramatic experience. The company’s website claims that its productions “aren’t just seen, they’re felt,” and NFL Films President Steve Sabol asserts that his main goal as a filmmaker is to “give the viewer goose pimples.”1 NFL Films creates these moving experiences by putting to use a distinct set of aesthetic conventions that have become commonplace in sports film and television, such as slow-motion cinematography, baritone voiceover narration, montage editing, and orchestral scores. It uses these dramatic conventions to create a highly selective history that unceasingly celebrates the league. Sabol even once described the company as a group of “historians, storytellers, [and] mythmakers.”2 Despite the changes that befall the NFL, NFL Films productions always filter the league through a framework that casts it as an heroic, masculine, and distinctly American institution characterized by moments of violence, power, beauty, and triumph. In fact, Sports Illustrated once called NFL Films “the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.”3
Given NFL Films’ longstanding commitment to producing a variety of nonfiction media about the league, it was only a matter of time until the organization delved into the popular genre of reality television. In 2001 NFL Films collaborated with HBO Sports to develop Hard Knocks, a reality television production that documents a particular team’s preseason training camp. The program airs on HBO and, as of 2010, has had six seasons (2001–2002–2007–2010). It is currently the most popular program NFL Films produces.
Hard Knocks purports to offer unprecedented access into the daily operations of NFL training camps, following players, coaches, and management during practices, workouts, meetings, and even after hours. To augment its coverage, it includes interviews wherein participants discuss their individual experiences at camp. The coaches outline the team’s goals for the season and ruminate on the difficult process of creating a final roster from the large group of players present at training camp. The players discuss their aspirations for the upcoming season [End Page 292] and how they plan to overcome the obstacles that stand in their way. The program dramatizes its coverage of the league’s day-to-day operations through employing NFL Films’ signature stylistic practices. For example, interview footage of a player who discusses how hard he will need to work to make the team might be followed by a montage sequence of his training backed by a driving musical score.
Like most reality television, however, Hard Knocks fashions the “reality” it captures into forms that maximize its entertainment value. For example, the 2010 season, which covered the New York Jets and stands as the program’s most popular season to date, focused primarily on the brash Jets coach Rex Ryan’s somewhat unorthodox coaching style; matinee idol quarterback Mark Sanchez’ efforts to adjust to his role as the team’s leader; defensive lineman Kris Jenkins’ attempts to get back on track...