Washington State's HBO Endeavor is a Bad Idea


The final season of Game of Thrones and Bill Simmons’ brief television endeavor notwithstanding, it’s hard to find failure on HBO.

The premium cable network has enjoyed a seemingly unprecedented run of success with their original programming. Nearly every series the show calls to order gains a massive following, even the short-lived gems (is it too much to ask for another season of Vice Principals?).

HBO’s uncensored, no holds barred nature allows its sports programming to stand out and pull no punches. Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel remains one of the most successful newsmagazines in television history. Numerous award-winning documentaries have been produced. Summer’s twilight has brought an annual August rite of passage: Hard Knocks.

Begun in 2001, Hard Knocks takes up residence at a different NFL training camp each year to document the unforgivable preparation for the upcoming season. This season’s subject is the Oakland Raiders, who have already provided a laundry list of headlines. Such antics include those of head coach Jon Gurden, as well as receiver Antonio Brown and his trusty helmet.

Of course, this being a “Hollywood” production…remember, HBO stands for “Home Box Office”, after all. It’s not a successful franchise unless countless sequels, spin-offs, etc. are produced. The NFL version isn’t going anywhere, despite teams reluctance. The league has since instituted guidelines that can force a team onto the show. But, as for what’s next, the show is apparently going back to school.

The Washington State Cougars have agreed to a deal that would place them on the network, an agreement that was revealed on Saturday. Unlike Hard Knocks, this series will take place during the course of the season rather than preseason practices.

There’s no use in asking “why?”. If America can agree on one thing, it’s their love of football. It’s a love evidenced by the ratings of oft-mocked gridiron endeavors like the Alliance of American Football. Heck, the college level rolls out circa 40 bowl games, many of them with little to no trophy value, for a simple reason: people watch.

But with HBO’s dive into the NCAA life, a new question arises: Is this really the right thing to do?

Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with partaking in Hard Knocks. There is a true sense of drama behind the proceedings, especially the all-too grounding scenes where players are called in by the coach to be released, and told their NFL dreams are over. It’s painful enough to see these men being told that their services are no longer required.

Now try to picture a similar scenario with young men who haven’t graduated yet.

The Hard Knocks castaways depart with the small comfort that they had an NFL contract, if only for a short while. But who is the true beneficiary of Washington State’s HBO project? These players already rake in revenue for both WSU and the NCAA, yet are barred from partaking in that tally themselves. A relationship with HBO to showcase events that would otherwise be confidential doesn’t send the right message in the continued refusal to at least reimburse players for their image usage. Didn’t the same controversy kill EA Sports’ NCAA Football franchise?

Yes, the student-athletes will probably insist that they’re fine with the process. But when their every move is set to be documented by HBO’s relentless lenses, it’s hard not to sympathize or feel a sense of exploitation.

Giving some spotlight to a bunch of inexperienced kids has backfired before. In 2005, MTV sent crews to Hoover, Alabama to document the local high school powerhouse. The final product was a reality series entitled Two-a-Days, which aired three seasons between the ensuing two years. In typical MTV fashion, storylines went beyond on-field antics, often document the players’ social lives.

The aftermath was less than pretty. Hoover head coach Rush Propst was later accused of fudging player grades to allow them to play and later drew ire for an extramarital affair. John “Goose” Dunham, a defensive lineman subject from the first season, later accused MTV of misrepresenting a platonic friendship with one of the other star’s girlfriend. Asked how if he liked the filming process during a 2008 reunion by ESPN, season two star Ross Wilson said “No, not at all”.

College football offers enough tantalizing distractions as is. Do we need to add this, too?

The choice of Washington State is also curious due to its inclusion of head coach Mike Leach. Certainly, no one is questioning Leach’s coaching resume. But controversy has followed Leach to Pullman, as his hiring was protested by some after allegations of player mistreatment arose at his former spot of Texas Tech.

Yes, the outspoken Leach can provide the show the same polarizing, if not entertaining, spark that Rex Ryan added when Hard Knocks documented the Jets. Again, though…Ryan’s boisterous comments were said in the company of grown men. We’ve seen shocking material on HBO before, but delighting in a grown man possibly yelling at college kids seems like a little too much.

No matter what happens, love of football will likely trump any reservations viewers have about the series. There’s no major moral quandaries behind it. Watching the series doesn’t make you a bad person in the slightest. The idea of placing this additional pressure on impressionable young men is just an idea that doesn’t feel right moving forward.

Enjoy the series, but remember….

It’s not TV. It’s college football.