School of Hard Knocks

NFL Films’ programming humanizes the chaos of sports

Sports are pretty much the only organic source of reality TV. Lacking the filter of time delay inherent in award shows, late-night hosting and situation-based "fish out of water" programming, sporting events represent a real-time event that is informed by a mix of skill and probability. Even live political addresses are completely scripted. In the case of football, there is a consistent balance between potential monetary success and fame as well as bodily harm that creates a tension that can't be replicated artificially. We aren't allowed to watch dudes fight lions on pay-per-view (yet) so NFL Films is about as close to reality as we're getting.

In an interview with The Believer, acclaimed visual artist Matthew Barney cites NFL Films as having "influenced filmmaking" by "[bringing] the individual character out of the chaotic mass of people." They use intimate angles, slow motion, rousing orchestra and measured pacing to make an often brutal, complex, unforgiving game look and feel beautiful. If the director behind the Cremaster Cycle can see the drama and visual intrigue underneath the aggression of the gridiron, we too should be capable of doing so.

NFL Films has a time-honoured tradition of making a sport built on tension even more epic. A great example lies in their Sound FX: Mic'd Up video series, particularly one involving Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The program gives you access to in-game sound from inside the helmets of players. In a woeful battle between two underachievers, the Cleveland Browns took on Detroit for not much more than bragging rights, but still managed to be quite dramatic.
Hit from all angles, Stafford still manages to bring his team back from a 3 – 24 deficit to work their way to a 31 – 37 score with 1:46 left on the clock. He drives it up the field in a classic two-minute drill to get into scoring position before getting his shoulder smashed by an opposing defender with no time remaining. An offsetting facemask penalty gives them one last chance to complete the comeback, which the wounded Stafford of course achieves. What makes this movie-style triumph interesting is the framing and presentation with which the NFL Films team works with: a combination of cinematic structure and gritty realism that documents the emotion behind the experience.


NFL Films and HBO's co-produced Hard Knocks is an annual look at the inside workings of a different NFL team, from training camp all the way to the end of the season. This season was spent following the New York Jets, a team that was one win away from playing in the Super Bowl last season. Their coach is former defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens named Rex Ryan. Son of famous coach Buddy Ryan, he has gained a reputation for having a foul mouth and a cocky attitude. The first episode of this season has him telling his team they're "going to beat the fuck out" of every team in the league.

The Jets are a quirky bunch and Hard Knocks illuminates that. They eat junk food, even pounding cheeseburgers during a public practice scrimmage to the chagrin of their animated coach. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie struggles to name his eight different children for the camera and is intensely scared of going down a water slide. Young quarterback Mark Sanchez wears a Taco Bell hat for the entirety of training camp, seemingly unrelated to marketing. He draws moustaches on pictures of his offensive coordinator's kids as a prank.

All fun aside, the sport is mostly presented on the show as businesslike. Players are browbeaten for incorrectly running routes or missing blocking assignments. Members of the team must memorize a labyrinthine series of coverage packages and plays to process at any time on the field. The entire season so far has focused on conditioning, the cold reality of getting cut and the looming spectre of Darrelle Revis, the Jets' star defensive player, boycotting camp in order to renegotiate his contract (at press time, he has accepted a new deal and will be with the team in time for the Jets season opener this Monday).

The Jets organization seemingly has the same level of bureaucracy as any other corporate office would and it's comforting to be made aware of that. Hard Knocks humanizes the action and invests you in the success and failure of the team. Seeing the sacrifices, the discipline and the process behind a unit provides valuable context and perspective behind what appeals to people about the sport. Knowing that the future is not promised to anyone, even in the high stakes world of big money football, is a humbling touchstone of the humanity of Hard Knocks. V


Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton's Poet Laureate. His TV column appears in Vue Weekly on the second Thursday of each month.

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