A New Season of HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks,’ A New Test for Covering NFL Anthem Controversy

There is a scene in an episode of last season’s Hard Knocks—the HBO reality documentary series that follows an NFL team during training camp—in which Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tests the limits of the league’s newly-loosened celebration rules. “Is this too much?” asks McCoy, playfully swiveling his hips, of visiting NFL referee Ed Hochuli. The official laughs and replies that McCoy’s dancing rests in a gray area. Ultimately the decision to throw a penalty flag rests on the intent behind the expression, McCoy and his teammates conclude: serious, or suggestive?

The clip is a standout moment from the 12th season of the series, which picked up a Sports Emmy for outstanding serialized documentary. Still, the referee’s casual ruling during the episode pales in comparison to the official judgment the NFL made for another type of player demonstration: kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. The league and its players’ union, the National Football League Players Association, are currently locked in a standstill agreement over the future of the NFL’s anthem policy, which was overhauled in May and prompted immediate backlash from players and critics who argue that it restricts First Amendment rights.

The NFL’s controversial ruling decrees that any players on the field during the anthem’s performance must stand “and show respect for the flag.” Any players who disobey this mandate will earn their team a fine, and teams are left the choice of suspending or fining individual players who violate the policy. If players do not wish to stand for the anthem, they may do so—but only within the locker room, away from the public eye. For now, enforcement of the policy is on hold while “confidential discussions are ongoing,” according to a joint statement from the NFL and NFLPA. Many team owners remain adamant that players appear and stand for the anthem. But they want the NFLPA to willingly agree to it, rather than capitulate to an imposed policy.

The NFL’s restriction on players kneeling during the national anthem traces back to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the practice in 2016 to protest police brutality and social injustice for black and other minority Americans. Athletes quickly replicated the gesture across the NFL, a league in which 70% of players are black, but sparked a national debate as some teammates, pundits, and even the president of the United States called it unpatriotic and disrespectful to the American flag and military.

Which brings us back to Hard Knocks, or more generally, NFL Films—the NFL-owned production company behind the show and another all-access series, Amazon’s All or Nothing. NFL Films, which says its mission is to pull back the curtain of celebrity on NFL stars and showcase them as complex human beings, faces a conundrum in the wake of increasing tension between the league and its players. In the scene with McCoy and the Buccaneers, the NFL was cast in a positive light—the league was loosening its grip on a strict rule and allowing the players to have a little fun and delight fans. But what happens when the series depicts the NFL at a time when it is trying to enforce a controversial rule that strikes at the heart of many players’ identities and stirs the national debate over patriotism?

In an interview with Fortune, Ken Rodgers, senior coordinating producer at NFL Films and the man responsible for Hard Knocks over the last decade, plays coy about the show’s upcoming season. It “certainly could” feature an anthem narrative, he says, but it’s not guaranteed. (When Fortune spoke to Rodgers, the season hadn’t yet begun production.) “Hard Knocks has always been free of restrictions,” he says. “Whatever the team’s messages are, whether it’s conditioning, attitude, how to deal with the media, franchise viewpoints about the anthem—that’s what would show up on Hard Knocks.”

Peter Nelson, executive vice president for HBO Sports, agrees. Hard Knocks “is unscripted television,” he says. “[We show] whatever the cameras capture.”

The new season of Hard Knocks debuts on August 7th. It centers on the Cleveland Browns, a team that participated in anthem protests twice last year: a preseason game that saw around a dozen Browns kneel, the largest team demonstration at that point, and a Sept. 24 game in which 21 Browns kneeled following President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire players who protested during the anthem. The Browns’ owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, have expressed support for their players’ actions, calling it a spark to “meaningful and powerful dialogue” within the organization.

But will that sentiment appear on Hard Knocks? If Browns players or personnel chose to address the issue in the upcoming season, they aren’t telling. Fortune reached out to several Browns players to discuss the issue but did not receive a response. The team’s spokesman, Peter John-Baptiste, says only that the organization is “very proud” of the actions players have taken to support social justice and fight inequality: “We’ve encouraged that work, have been able to help facilitate some of that work, and will continue to support those efforts.”

Brian Billick, an analyst for the NFL Network and NFL.com and a former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, which was the featured team of the first season of Hard Knocks in 2001, believes that additional candor would be good for show and sport alike. “Taking a knee will be a very interesting storyline [on Hard Knocks],” he says. “I can understand Cleveland wanting to do something. It could be a very positive thing. I’m sure it will be. Sure, the league will have a lot to say about it, but it may show that the teams in the league are very aware of it. And the league would be better for it.”

The biggest challenge for the NFL, Billick adds, is the degree of transparency it’s willing to allow. “The league made a decision, good or bad, and players do have a say—how it’s going to work, how the league is going to handle it,” Billick says. “But you do run the risk of something blowing up.”

The NFL itself is hardly known for its openness—it has been criticized for its management of various incidents of domestic violence among players, and it took until 2016 for the league to acknowledge research linking football collisions with brain damage—but its films division has been slightly less guarded. An episode of the twelfth season of Hard Knocks, which focused on the Los Angeles Rams, depicted a meeting led by head coach Jeff Fisher in which he explains in detail how and where players should stand on the sideline during the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner—down to the position of their helmets. “This is important to us. This is what it looks like,” Fisher says during the meeting. “It’s an opportunity to realize how lucky you are and what you’re doing, what you’re about ready to do. That’s how you show your opponent that you’re ready to play. That’s how you start a game.”

Similarly, a recent episode of Amazon’s All or Nothing depicting the Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 season included audio of owner Jerry Jones instructing the team to kneel “in the name of unity” before the anthem—but stand during it—at a high-profile Monday night game following President Donald Trump’s remarks condemning player protests. As the moment plays out on camera, the team is roundly booed by fans who interpret the gesture as a protest.

But neither one of those scenes shows a flat-out rejection of league policy, whether by owner or player. (“I don’t think [Hard Knocks] is the place to bring up politics, or personal issues, or that controversy,” says Buccaneers chief operating officer Brian Ford.) In a 2011 essay for Salon, television critic Matt Zoller Seitz described NFL Films as “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history.” Rodgers, the NFL Films producer, takes a more nuanced stance. “NFL Films spent decades building players up as heroes, we made them larger than life with orchestral music,” he says. “What we wanted to do with Hard Knocks was show the other side. They aren’t heroes. They are men, trying to earn a job, just like all of us do coming out of college. That was the attraction, being able to show an empathetic side of football that nobody had really seen because we built the players up as if they had super powers. We wanted to make them more accessible as humans.”

And so Hard Knocks has gently acknowledged the anthem issue on tape and tiptoed around others. (Consider a 2012 episode showing Joe Philbin, then the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, firing player Chad Johnson for his off-field antics; those antics, obliquely referenced in the taped exchange, included Johnson’s fresh arrest, and later conviction, for a physical altercation with his then-wife.) The dominant narrative going into the new NFL season will undoubtedly be its new anthem policy. As the debate warms from a simmer to a boil between the league and its players, NFL Films and Hard Knocks will find itself stuck between serving two missions: humanizing its superhuman stars, and shoring up support for the Greatest Show on Turf.

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