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Antonio Brown Has Forced a ‘Hard Knocks’ Reckoning

It’s one thing for the show to be boring. It’s another for the show to outright miss (or worse, ignore) the biggest story of the NFL preseason.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, all hell broke loose at Raiders training camp. Antonio Brown, the team’s prized offseason acquisition following his falling out with Pittsburgh, reportedly “got into it” with general manager Mike Mayock, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday. The source of the scuffle, according to Vic Tafur of The Athletic, was Brown’s unhappiness with the fines Mayock levied against him for missing some training camp activities, a sentiment that the wide receiver had posted about on social media earlier in the day—a flourish that Mayock apparently did not appreciate. The two reportedly got into a shouting match, and per Tafur, it was Vontaze Burfict who helped hold Brown back from Mayock—the same Burfict who viciously laid out Brown with a direct hit to the head in 2016, concussing Brown and earning the then–Bengals linebacker a three-game suspension. If only, you might be thinking, there had been a richly sourced, all-access camera crew on hand this preseason to document the drama.

Up until this week, of course, there was—at least in theory. This season, the Raiders hosted Hard Knocks, the NFL’s annual deep dive into training camp. That five-episode season wrapped on Tuesday, so the HBO miniseries would not, alas, have been there for the Brown-Mayock incident. But the crew was around for all the A.B. issues leading up to this blowout.

Except that if you watched Hard Knocks this season, you would hardly have known anything was amiss with Brown at all, and at this point it’s fair to wonder: After the show downplayed what should have been the most interesting story line in its history, why should any of us ever bother watching again?

Brown’s summer—from the improbable cryotherapy incident that badly damaged the soles of his feet and sidelined him for the entire preseason, to the clashes over his no-longer-permitted helmet that led to the wide receiver threatening to retire from football for good, to the present confrontation with Mayock—has indisputably been the biggest story of the Raiders’ offseason, if not the NFL preseason as a whole. But through a full season of Hard Knocks, we learned virtually nothing about Brown that hadn’t already been reported elsewhere; instead, we got feel-good compilations of Brown working out in his pool. At this point, the Mayock blowout could lead to Brown’s suspension, a forfeit of his salary guarantees, and perhaps even his departure from the Raiders before so much as playing a single game for them. Hard Knocks’ failure is complete. If the show couldn’t so much as engage with what was far and away its most pressing question, what’s the point?

Hard Knocks has never been a journalistic enterprise, exactly. It’s put together by the league’s in-house video arm, NFL Films, and while teams don’t get to choose whether they want to become a given season’s subject, they do have substantial editorial discretion. (Any team that (a) does not have a first-year head coach, (b) has not made it to the playoffs in the last two seasons, and (c) hasn’t appeared on the show in the last decade cannot decline Hard Knocks; this year, Oakland was one of five such teams.) Which is to say that the show is more PR exercise than behind-the-scenes tell-all: The whole point is to sell you on the glory and sacrifice and all-American wholesomeness of training camp and the looming football season, and, perhaps, to convince you that this year’s hard-luck contender is about to turn the corner.

But while some teams have been willing to let Hard Knocks present their training camp struggles with seeming accuracy—The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz pointed to last season’s well-received Cleveland chapter, during which, as he wrote last month, “the disconnect between then–head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley was palpable”—the Raiders apparently were anything but. As Hard Knocks got underway this summer, Pro Football Talk’s Peter King reported that the Raiders were less than enthusiastic participants: “Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock do not want any part of Hard Knocks,” he wrote, “and because teams have the opportunity to view the prospective show before it airs each week, there’s no question in my mind that the Raiders are being heavy editors.” Even before the team had been selected, the party line was clear: “It would be disruptive,” owner Mark Davis told ESPN earlier this year of hosting Hard Knocks.

The resulting series was bland, and sometimes outright boring. There was a lot of time devoted to plucky players who were clearly going to get cut (fare-thee-well, Keelan Doss and Jason Cabinda); a little time for head coach Jon Gruden, currently in the second year of a 10-year, $100 million contract, being Jon Gruden; next to no time for the Raiders’ actually pressing questions, including: “What does it mean that the team is about to uproot itself and move to Las Vegas?,” “What do they do now that Gruden has figured out that quarterback Derek Carr probably isn’t his guy?,” “Given last year’s dismal results, is Gruden the right guy?,” and, most urgently, “What in the world is going on with Antonio Brown?”

From week to week, the show failed to explain what was going on with his feet, why he was apparently more willing to quit football than abandon his old helmet, and how Raiders leadership was reacting to their star acquisition going MIA. These weren’t minor questions—these were the questions, for the Raiders and, to some degree, for the NFL as a whole. And, whether through ignorance, bad timing, censorship by the Raiders, or something else, Hard Knocks whiffed at every opportunity. One of the best players in football, who has just made one of the most potentially meaningful changes of teams in the sport, might not play this season, and perhaps not ever for his new squad. And despite an NFL documentary that promised us a month and a half of unlimited access, we’re none the wiser for it.

Hard Knocks might be mandatory for the teams it comes to visit. For the rest of us—I think it’s fair to say that from here on out, we might as well skip it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.