The very first thing we hear during the premiere of this season’s Hard Knocks is Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden growling at his players to rethink their goals and expectations. “Everybody right now has dreams,” he says. “I’m really not into dreams anymore, OK? I’m into fucking nightmares.” It’s a rousing speech, but the show that follows floats past in a dreamlike state, one that says very little about the NFL but reveals a lot about what the league does and doesn’t want us to see.
It’s not surprising that Hard Knocks, which purports to give a behind-the-scenes view of training camp, doesn’t actually go behind the scenes. That’s unavoidable given that the NFL, which co-produces the series with HBO, is obsessed with protecting its own image. But even by Hard Knocks’ well-established standards, the focus has been embarrassingly soft during the show’s 14th season. The Raiders and their enigmatic wide receiver Antonio Brown are the best story of this or any other NFL preseason. But rather than adapt the series to highlight the Raiders’ peculiarities, Hard Knocks has intentionally obscured what makes the team fascinating. The league’s training camp reality series has always been propaganda. This year, it’s boring propaganda.
Hard Knocks circa 2019, it quickly became clear, would be a frustrating exercise in making the only interesting training camp of modern times seem exactly the same as every other camp. Brown, whom the Raiders traded for in the offseason, has been a one-man news cyclone this summer. First, he couldn’t participate in practice because he didn’t protect his feet properly in a cryotherapy chamber and got frostbite. What did Hard Knocks viewers learn about that amazingly bizarre injury? Nothing that they didn’t already know. During the season’s second episode, the cameras cut away to an NFL Network clip that highlighted Brown’s Instagram photo of his messed-up feet. Hard Knocks promises to provide insider access. It’s hard to conceive of anything more outsider-y than a league-produced news clip about a social media post.
For Brown, the foot snafu was just a prelude. Later in training camp, he refused to take the field because the league had outlawed his favored helmet, which had been deemed obsolete and unsafe. As Michael Silver revealed in a viral Twitter thread, Brown repeatedly tried to play “with his old helmet, which he had since had repainted with colors approximating—but not completely mimicking—the Raiders’ silver-and-black design.”
That thread, and subsequent stories about Brown’s failed attempts to convince the league to succumb to his headgear-based desires, were a godsend for the August news doldrums. But Hard Knocks isn’t prepared to cover stories that can’t be turned into chipper montages, and so the most interesting saga in recent training camp history was more or less ignored. Once again, the news was presented to viewers via recycled NFL Network segments (this time superimposed onto TVs during b-roll of the Raiders cafeteria). While coaches and players were mic’d up throughout camp, the NFL didn’t want us to hear what they actually thought about Brown and his helmet. The most we got was Gruden sighing, “Anyone see my friend Antonio Brown? I wish he was here.” I wish he was too, coach!
Hard Knocks is only comfortable when it’s laboring to convince us that roster moves are the most profoundly important decisions in human history. Legitimate news stories, meanwhile, are handled with the confidence of a teenager using his older brother’s ID. Take the introduction of newly signed offensive lineman Richie Incognito, which happens toward the end of the first episode. He’s shown in trademark Hard Knocks slo-mo as a Hans Zimmer–like score blares with dramatic bwwaaaaaass and bwuuuuuuuuurs and the gravelly voiced Liev Schreiber intones:
Perhaps no one is under more scrutiny than Richie Incognito. He’s a talent with a history, some of it ugly. He went unsigned in 2014 and quit the NFL altogether last year. Now, he’s un-retired. But he’ll start this season serving a two-game suspension. He’s also been to the Pro Bowl four times in the last five years he played.
Left unmentioned are any details of Incognito’s “ugly” “history.” The offensive lineman “went unsigned” after the 2014 season because he hazed and threatened his Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin to the point where Martin left the team. The Dolphins then suspended Incognito after ESPN revealed the contents of a racist voicemail Incognito left on Martin’s phone. When Incognito retired in 2018, he told reporters, “My liver and kidneys are shutting down. The stress is killing me.” In May of that year he was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold after behaving in an “altered, paranoid state” at a Florida gym. A few months later, he was arrested in Arizona for threatening employees at the funeral home where his father’s remains were being held, and police found two pistols and three rifles in his car. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. That’s what the two-game suspension is for.
I’d like to imagine that the decision-making process behind signing a player like Incognito was fraught and complex, and that the team is making a concerted effort to attend to his various health issues. But all we can do is imagine it, because all we see, again, is a brief NFL Network clip. Here’s the full quote featured on Hard Knocks: “This signing doesn’t come as too much of a surprise if you take a look at the needs the team is addressing. When you bring in a guy like Richie Incognito, you are getting a veteran with more than 10 years’ experience who can deliver right away.”
The show did, thank heavens, find time for two recitations of “The Autumn Wind,” a Raiders-themed poem written by NFL Films boss Steve Sabol in the 1970s. The third episode also had plenty of room for an extended Frank Caliendo impersonation of Gruden, though I’ll give the producers the benefit of the doubt on that one and chalk it up to “character development.”
In previous seasons, Hard Knocks used its access to create memorable television moments. When Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland told cornerback Vontae Davis that the team was trading him in 2012, we watched a shocked Davis ask to call his grandmother. In 2016, a camera in the office of Rams head coach Jeff Fisher captured the phone conversation in which he cut future Super Bowl winner Nick Foles. But when personnel moves aren’t front and center, the show’s kid gloves become all thumbs. Expecting Hard Knocks to cover actual news, it’s now clear, is like expecting Survivor to devote an entire season to climate change’s effects on island sustainability.
Hard Knocks still wants you to think it’s raw and real, though. That’s what all the swearing is for. But apart from a few fucks and shits, the show is lighter than a fairy tale. “Are you guys clear enough about this NFL shit now?” Gruden asks his players at the end of his speech about nightmares. For those watching Hard Knocks, the answer is a resounding “No.”