As details of the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito story continue to emerge, the NFL may find itself in a curious position come August.
The NFL Films-produced HBO program Hard Knocks is known for its inside access, wonderful cinematography and dramatic music. It’s also known for giving viewers a rare look at the rookie initiation process in an NFL locker room.
In recent renditions of the program, rookies have been subjected to various forms of initiation rituals on the Emmy-winning series. In the show’s first season back in 2001, Baltimore Ravens rookie Chris Barnes did not participate in the team’s Rookie Talent Show and later was taped to a goal post by veterans, covered in baby powder, and doused in Gatorade.
The clip found here comes off as good fun. Tony Siragusa, now with Fox but then with the Ravens, jokingly tells the camera: “There were some rookies who didn’t perform and there are some consequences to that.”
After holding out in training camp as a rookie, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was tied to a goal post in 2008. Veteran wide receiver Eddie Kennison assures Bowe, in this clip, “Don’t worry, I’ll leave you some breathing room,” as he wraps the rookie in Saran Wrap before Bowe gets a Gatorade bucket filled with freezing water dumped over his head.
Kennison playfully kisses Bowe on the head and Bowe smiles to the camera. Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards watches from afar, assuring nothing gets out of hand, and comments: “That was easy. He just got cold water.”
The Jets’ Hard Knocks run in 2010, arguably the show’s best in its 11 years, gave America a chance to watch New York’s annual “King Ugly” contest held for rookies. Second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse won second and third place.
In 2012, Jonathan Martin — yes, that Jonathan Martin — was one of young men put through a rookie initiation on the show. As a rookie lineman for the Miami Dolphins, he was given an embarrassing haircut. It was Martin, curiously enough, who posted this picture on his Twitter profile:
As viewers, we generally enjoy watching these scenes. Checking the blogs from Wednesday mornings over the past few Augusts, the rookie initiation segments seem to be among the most popular on the show. They give viewers the rare opportunity to step inside the locker room and see how NFL players interact with each other. We’re given a free access card to a fraternity unlike any other.
Watching Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe laugh as the rookies make fun of their various pregame rituals on “Rookie Night” in 2001 is one of the best parts of the program. It’s something you’re getting nowhere else. There certainly hasn’t been a big anti-bullying push from the sports media covering the show.
But will we ever see another one of those scenes again? In light of the Martin/Incognito news this month, there’s reason to imagine the league will install a league-wide mandate to closely monitor all rookie initiation rituals, moving forward. As a result, the league may shy away from featuring any such incidents on its Emmy-winning series, as well.
FOX Sports reached out to NFL Films, and a league spokesperson declined to comment at this moment.
Make no mistake, Hard Knocks itself, isn’t going anywhere. In October, the league’s owners passed a proposal that makes each team eligible to be potentially selected to appear on the documentary series, if they don’t qualify for exemptions and enough teams don’t voluntarily participate.
Across the board, coaches weren’t thrilled with the rule.
“I think it’s a total distraction, and I think it’s an embarrassment to players,” Bruce Arians told Alex Marvez on SiriusXM radio last month. “I think when players are released, some of the things that are said between coaches and players are too personal, and nobody else’s business.”
Asked if he’d fight a Hard Knocks assignment “tooth and nail" Arians answered emphatically.
“All the way,” Arians said. “All the way.”
Changes certainly are coming for NFL locker rooms this summer. Expect a more vigilant eye on the treatment of rookies, as well as and various anti-bullying/hazing initiatives. The league most assuredly is going to do all it can to address such a negative stigma.
Don’t be surprised if the rookie initiations that remain miss Hard Knocks’ own final cutdown.