Barber: 'Hard Knocks' strips away Raiders' privacy, and we eat it up

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NAPA — Reporters are trained to catch minute details, but it’s a little hard to absorb every action and interaction when you’re at a joint Raiders-Rams practice featuring 180 players split between adjacent football fields.

There’s a backup plan this year, though. If you miss an altercation or a dropped touchdown pass, just watch HBO the following Tuesday. Reporters are only human; they overlook things. But the NFL Films cameras working the scene for “Hard Knocks,” the immensely popular football peep show? They miss nothing.

“After a while, you just get used to it,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams, who were on “Hard Knocks” in 2016, said after practice Thursday. “You just kind of block the cameras out after a while. At first, you’re in meetings and there’s cameras everywhere. After a while you just get in that camp mode, you forget all about the cameras and it’s just normal.”

The new normal, anyway. We are rapidly becoming a society with no expectation of privacy. We are filmed on the street, at the bank, at the office and, left to our own handheld devices, even out for beers with our friends. And professional athletes have even fewer private moments than the rest of us. I guess “Hard Knocks” was ahead of its time.

This year’s edition, you probably have heard, is following Raiders training camp in Napa. It’s a wonderful, creepy window for the team’s fans and media, and a burden that the NFL has placed upon the Raiders, one of five teams eligible for the 2019 series.

“Bottom line for me, Jon (Gruden) and I are kind of old school,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said July 26, the day before the first practice here. “The reason you go away to training camp is to get away from all the distractions. Get together, bond, learn your assignments. No distractions, no intrusions. ‘Hard Knocks’ is an intrusion. But it was handed to us, so it’s up to us to deal with it.”

Professional reaction to “Hard Knocks” varies. Some people fully endorse it, like Warren Sapp, the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played for the Raiders from 2004-07. “Oh, I love it,” Sapp said Thursday. “Yeah, I love it. I love it all the time.”

Others have no interest, like Raiders center Rodney Hudson, who said he would “absolutely not” be tuning in. “That isn’t my thing, reality TV,” Hudson added.

Or Gruden, who never met a camera he didn’t like, unless it is invading the coaching safe spaces of the meeting or film room. “Maybe some guys will put it on,” Gruden told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t even know what it’s called where you can record it and watch it whenever you can, but we are not going to be eating Crackerjacks and peanuts and watching it. We got meetings, we got the Rams coming in here.”

Some players embrace the attention, like Raiders safety Jonathan Abram, who emerged as the surprise star of Episode 1 last Tuesday night as the cameras found him riding a horse with fellow rookie Clelin Ferrell, razzing quarterback Derek Carr for his huge contract and defending himself when Gruden lectured him. “I mean, my philosophy is what Coach Gruden tells us every day: Just be yourself,” Abram said Wednesday. “You know, don’t change up, just be yourself.”

Others are averse, like Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who had this advice for Raiders players, delivered with a chuckle: “Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your mouth shut.”

To be honest, Donald is right about the NFL Films field cameras and boom microphones. They stand out at first, little clusters of gray T-shirts. But these folks are highly skilled in the arts of unobtrusive surveillance. They’re just sort of there in the background, and it isn’t long before they are rendered invisible.

The interior spaces must be a different story. Consider a film crew following you around at your job, capturing your every conversation. I’m trying to imagine cameras and mikes at the 3 p.m. editorial meeting in the Press Democrat newsroom. Would the editors speak their minds? Or would they be scared to say something that the outside world might perceive as off the wall? Would self-consciousness dampen the final product?

Sapp agreed that “Hard Knocks” would change the dynamic of a film session, but “only if you messing up, because you will have a coach that will go off,” he posited. “You see what I’m saying? If you got a coach that’ll go off? And they filmin’ it? He’s going off on you, with that film? Ooo-oo-woo!”

But Sapp, a connoisseur of the HBO program since it debuted in 2001, insists that “Hard Knocks” is skillfully edited to remove strategic secrets and conversations that might be truly embarrassing to an organization.

“That’s why you want the rookie show, and good plays or a good blowup. When you’re in a meeting in there with everybody, and they show all the plays, rah-rah-rah like that,” he said. “But you really don’t want to get into the individual meeting. Because that is when you’re doing the coaching, and that’s when you’re doing the most one-on-one: ‘This is wrong,’ ‘I need your step to be quicker,’ ‘I need your hands.’ You know. You don’t want to expose that part of the game.”

The rest of the sports world seems to be following HBO’s lead. NBA coaches routinely have to offer bland analysis to a sideline reporter as they leave the court at halftime, and their pep talks on the bench are part of the public record. Perhaps the MLB All-Star Game has taken it to the furthest extreme. This year’s Fox telecast had announcers conversing with hardwired players while they batted and played in the field.

I’m not gonna lie. I ate it up. Getting those insights in real time was fascinating. But that’s an exhibition contest. The stakes are almost nonexistent. The line is harder to draw when it comes to true competition, and figuring out where to place it is a challenge now facing every professional sports league.

It isn’t the team’s interests that concern me when I watch “Hard Knocks,” though. It’s the athletes’ privacy. One of the most compelling episodes in every season comes when cut day rolls around, and some of the young players, guys you’ve been getting to know for a month, suddenly get the heave-ho. It’s an intimate moment, or should be, and watching it can be heart-wrenching.

“I used to be one of the worst dudes on a football team when it was cut day,” said Sapp, who joined the Buccaneers as a first-round draft pick in 1995. “Because, I mean, I’d be in the locker room after the (last preseason) game like, ‘Hey, man, you might want to take your jersey with you.’ I mean, I was bad. I was really, really bad.”

Then a teammate, defensive end Steve White, told Sapp about getting cut by the Eagles in 1996. White had a good camp that year and was in line to make the final roster. He was certain of it. Then someone at another position got hurt, and Philadelphia had to bring in a replacement.

In the 11th hour, the team’s needs changed and White became the odd man out. He was devastated.

“And I’m like, damn, I never know anybody’s situation,” Sapp said. “So that’s when I stopped. Then it was like, ‘Hey man, good luck. Good luck, fellas. Good luck, man.’”

But Sapp is also a man who appreciates good TV, and an athlete who worked for everything he ever got. His compassion has limits.

“If it’s one of those guys that, you know: ‘I’m this, and I’m gonna make the team,’ one of them guys? Get him. Get him. Get him. Go clean his locker out, let him walk by and see that it’s cleaned out, and then tell him that you have to come see me. So he already know he cut, but he just hasn’t been notified. That’s the worst one right there, boy.”

And the best one, if you have an HBO subscription and an appetite for seeing how Antonio Brown roils the waters next.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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