The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind-the-scenes sports docuseries are everywhere, and the messiness is the best part

Colts Coach Frank Reich saw a disastrous season-ending loss to the Jaguars. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
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We need more up-close, behind-the-scenes sports docuseries. It’s a wonderful thing to have cameras embedded with a team, documenting its performance highs and lows. Check that: Just the lows, please.

Sports leagues and organizations keep partnering with entertainment networks that will allow them final editorial control of their narratives, but there’s no airbrushing a dumpster fire. And after watching the latest installment of NFL Films’s “Hard Knocks” with the Indianapolis Colts — the first time the show has been taped and aired during the season — I’m convinced that on-field misery makes for amazing television.

The season finale felt like watching epic love story “Titanic” and fast-forwarding to the part where everyone drowns. Just as we already know how Rose won’t make room on that floating door for Jack, we knew how this season of “Hard Knocks” would end. The Colts would go down to Jacksonville and lose to a franchise that needed 11 months longer than the rest of the world to realize Urban Meyer shouldn’t be an NFL coach. And instead of punching their ticket to the playoffs, the stars of the show would walk off the field as the vanquished, their white jerseys gleaming under the sun but their despondent dispositions ready for the nearest golf course. Even while freezing in that ocean, Jack suffered less than the Colts fans who got camera time during the episode.

The mother of cornerback Kenny Moore II, that poor woman. As she sat in a small section of friendlies, wearing her son’s jersey, her agony helped move the story forward. If “Hard Knocks” wins any awards this year, she deserves her own Emmy nomination for the side-eye glance she shot her companion when he asked if the Colts had it in them to come back from a three-touchdown deficit.

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The Colts surely didn’t expect the show to end like this. But maybe it’s for the best that an all-access sports docuseries ends unpredictably messily. Viewers are the winners when teams and leagues can’t control everything, especially the outcome.

The Colts had final say over what appeared in the show — which makes sense for those inside an NFL C-suite who are image-conscious. The team and players did allow boom mics inside the facility to catch insider talk, and cameras in private spaces also captured wholesome family moments. That is all good and nice, but well before the grimy ending, the show could’ve served up a dose of the cloud hovering over the franchise along with the steaming pile of puff.

These Colts started the season as one of the least-vaccinated teams in the NFL and watched their playoff hopes end following two putrid performances by unvaccinated quarterback Carson Wentz, who contracted the coronavirus in Week 17 before a crucial game against the Las Vegas Raiders. And yet, while the Colts’ vaccination status was the overarching late-season theme in the Indianapolis market, it played out as a mere subplot only in the penultimate episode of the HBO show.

We saw Wentz’s aversion to masks on “Hard Knocks” — seriously, would it kill him to pull the cloth up above his schnozzle every now and then? — but there was no scene in which he addressed the elephant in the room. Nothing from Wentz as to why he had to be away from the team during its week of preparation for the Raiders — a week he absolutely needed ahead of a game that could have ensured the Colts’ postseason berth.

Reporters, who aren’t paid by the team, had grilled Wentz about his vaccination status during training camp, but there wasn’t even a breakout, softball interview on the show for him to explain in his own words why he chose not to get vaccinated.

That wasn’t the story the Colts wanted to tell their viewers, but leagues and teams will always get to share their version of the truth because fans’ insatiable hunger demands access — even heavily edited access.

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The first season of the hit Netflix show on Formula One racing, “Drive To Survive,” has a 92 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. On the heels of this success, the streaming platform has announced partnerships with the PGA Tour and the ATP and WTA tours for upcoming shows. According to reports, a camera crew has been documenting the Novak Djokovic ordeal as it unfolds in Australia — though fans will have to wait until 2023 to see how Netflix portrays the vaccination drama centered on the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player.

Still, no one should have to wait that long to deduce that Djokovic and his corporate tennis partners — much like the Colts in “Hard Knocks” — are likely to have final approval on how those events are presented.

That’s why unforeseeable chaos should be the only way for these shows to end. No one could control a two-touchdown underdog denying its opponent a trip to the playoffs, but that’s what happened to the Colts during their star turn on HBO. Sports execs might demand the final say on shot lists and storyboards, but for creative excellence, they can’t compete with the randomness and drama that can only be produced on the field.

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