We appreciate HBO's nod to normalcy in the form of last night's premiere of Hard Knocks.
The award-winning series, which follows a different NFL team's training camp each summer, is back for a 15th season. And this year—"one not like any year we've had in the National Football League," observes Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who reveals at the top of the hour that he contracted COVID-19—all bets are off. (Well, they're on, because Vegas will take your money come hell or more hell, but you understand.)
With no guarantee that there will even be a professional football season in 2020, and with colleges canceling fall sports at a rapid clip due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NFL Films doggedly set out to capture how the athletes are preparing to play in this highly irregular moment in time. Just as they've been doing for the better part of two decades, only with social distancing and a host of other rules in place to keep everyone healthy, minus any injuries suffered from the actual hard knocks.
So, as you might imagine, a lot looks different this season, and not only because face masks are no longer just for the field and the premiere opened with the Chargers having a big group Zoom meeting, the players full of as many questions about how they're actually going to pull this off as you may have.
For starters, the show is covering two teams for the first time, the Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams, who beginning this season are going to be sharing a home field at the brand-new SoFi Stadium (which was supposed to enjoy its grand opening on July 25 with a Taylor Swift concert, but pandemic) in Inglewood.
Construction on the $5 billion venue continued throughout the spring and summer despite various business shutdowns imposed by state and local officials; the Los Angeles Times reported that, as of mid-July, 49 (out of roughly 4,000) workers had tested positive for COVID, as did seven people working on the adjacent NFL Media building.
Developers said last month that the 70,000-seat stadium was 97 percent complete. Alas, the majority of the seats are going to be empty when football season commences.
"You practice, and practice is practice. And then you prepare to play a game and be on a big stage and play in front of a crowd," Rams star Aaron Donald told reporters in a video call in May. "... Just no excitement [without fans]. It wouldn't be fun to me. I don't think it would be fun to play a football game without fans."
The hopeful days of May, brimming with possibility that live events might take place in front of people by the time September rolled around, seem so long ago.
But there's a first time for everything, as Major League Baseball, currently a few weeks in to a 60-game season, and the NBA, gearing up for the playoffs in "The Bubble" in Orlando, have so far proved, with competition ensuing in front of small crowds of teammates, crew, members of the media and dozens of cardboard cutouts.
Training camps may have officially opened on July 28 (Donald reported along with everyone else who plans to play), but preseason NFL games were canceled out of an abundance of caution, automatically taking some of the juice out of Hard Knocks' usual plot line. But producers are confident that there is still a compelling story to tell, if not one of the most consequential stories the show has ever tackled.
"It's not about a particular team or particular teams anymore," Ken Rodgers, vice president of NFL Films, told the LA Times. "It's about the NFL as a whole and what the NFL is trying to accomplish. It really represents what all of America is trying to do, which is walk that line between trying to be as safe as possible while trying to find some normalcy. It's really about a workplace trying to get back on its feet and keep its people safe."
The Rams were featured on the program in 2016, their first year back in Los Angeles since the team moved to St. Louis in 1995, and this is the debut appearance for the Chargers, who relocated to L.A. from San Diego in 2017. Both teams failed to make the playoffs last season, just a year after the Rams made the Super Bowl and the Chargers tied for the most games won in the AFC.
So, even before there was an added layer of world events infiltrating the figurative bubble that athletes operate in in normal times, both teams—sporting new uniforms and playing in a new home—were going to be hungry heading into September.
The aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more has also added to the sense of responsibility the players feel when they're in the public eye, their platform to send a message about racial equality and social justice at the ready.
In a statement, Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said, "Hard Knocks gives us an opportunity to document how our players and entire organizations are supporting our community, addressing socioeconomic inequalities and injustices, and helping build up Los Angeles during these challenging times."
Lynn told the Times in June, as protests continued around the country following Floyd's death in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25, "I want to make this a better world for the next generation and not just for minorities, but for everybody. I believe in diversity, I believe in inclusion and if you believe in that, you can't just stand silent. You can't just stand on the sidelines and just watch. You got to say something, man." (On the show, Lynn tells his players in a Zoom meeting that he'll respect their right to protest, or not protest, during a game, and they agree that they're all on the same side of the greater issue at hand.)
In July, all 11 of greater Los Angeles' professional sports teams joined together to form The Alliance, described as "a comprehensive five-year commitment to drive investment and impact for social justice through sport" benefiting the Play Equity Fund in L.A. and Accelerate Change Together Anaheim.
Meanwhile, the Rams work out in Thousand Oaks, Calif., while the Chargers' practice facility is in Costa Mesa, a couple of hours away in L.A. traffic. There are about 30 people from Hard Knocks at each site, all wearing masks and contact-tracing bracelets, shooting the action from further away than usual with extra-powerful zoom lenses.
The teams are also spending as much time outdoors as possible, with the Rams setting up their two weight rooms in tents (still restricted to 15 people at a time) and turning the cafeteria into more of a grab-and-go set-up. At both facilities, you see the guys getting their temperatures checked and undergoing COVID and antibody tests, cringing at the swabs up their nose and exclaiming over the "big-ass needle" being used to draw blood. Hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes certainly have their day in the sun.
"I got a couple robo-cameras following me right now," Rams coach Sean McVay told the Los Angeles Daily News. "Every move I make in my office, so I have zero privacy. So, time that I would probably allocate at my home office otherwise, to try and get some of that privacy. I can't say anything without feeling like I am going to get in trouble."
Usually different crew members rotate in and out, but in NBA Bubble-fashion, one crew has been assigned to each site to stay for the duration of the preseason.
"This year we get to stretch our legs and be creative," Rodgers of NFL Films told the Times. "We necessarily don't have the answers yet, but that's our job to figure it out. It's what we get paid to do."
But though the cameras don't follow the players and coaches around inside their homes quite as much (though nice kitchen and backyard fireplace, McVay, well played), and more conversations take place virtually than ever before, this season is still chock-full of intimate, personal scenes, featuring partners, pets and parents. Tears are shed, muscles are flexed, trash is talked. And, as always, spontaneous hilarity ensues, such as when McVay tells his players to have more "social awareness" than to, um... abuse the Porta Potties.
Joey Bosa, the Chargers' star defensive end who just signed a $135 million contract extension, had told the Daily News he was looking forward to participating in Hard Knocks for the first time. "I'm a big fan of HBO," he said. "So it's going to be fun. I'll just need to maybe watch my language a little bit out there."
Judging from episode one, no one got that memo. (But no worries, it's HBO.)
Asked what advice he had for his teammates about handling the cameras following them around, Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was on the show in 2018 as a member of the Cleveland Browns, told the Daily News, "Just to be yourself. Don't let it be a distraction. I've seen it both ways. Be yourself."
Lynn encouraged his guys at the top of the hour last night, "Be patient...There's gonna be chaos, and it's gonna be change. It's gonna come every single day. The goals, the objectives will not change. I can't promise you you're not gonna get infected. I got infected."
Cut to the startled looks on the players' faces—surprised by the revelation in real time.
"I've talked to some people that say they're sick of this virus," Lynn continued. "Only what the hell is that supposed to mean? Let me tell you something, you ain't promised next year. You ain't promised tomorrow. What I want to do is, I want to limit your exposures, but then when that damn whistle blow, let's go kick somebody's ass and play some football...Be ready for chaos. Embrace it."
Padded practice beings next week, and if all goes accordingly both teams' efforts in the preseason will be rewarded with regular-season kickoffs on Sept. 13, the Chargers on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Rams at home hosting the Dallas Cowboys.
Because having the season called off due to a still-raging pandemic would be the hardest knock of all. And no one is making any promises.
New episodes of Hard Knocks premiere Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and are available on demand or on HBO Max.