Sports documentaries are about more than sports

by Dakota Palmer

March 8, 2019

NFL Films producer Ken Rodgers details the ins and outs of sports-centered storytelling.

Ken Rodgers
Ken Rodgers Photo by Qian Zhu

“Real human events—if they strike you, they’re going to strike the audience,” NFL Films producer Ken Rodgers said during a Newhouse Sports Media Center event on March 5.

Rodgers sat down with Jordan Kligerman, Syracuse University assistant director of athletics for creative services, to talk about his filmmaking process—specifically his work on two sports documentary series: ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” and HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

Rodgers centered his “30 for 30” discussion around two episodes: “Deion’s Double Play,” about Deion Sanders playing both professional football and baseball, and “Elway to Marino,” about six star quarterbacks that came from the 1983 draft.

“Deion’s Double Play” is about the single day in 1992 when Deion Sanders played baseball for the Atlanta Braves and football for the Atlanta Falcons. As a football player, he referred to himself by the nickname “Prime Time,” but when he played baseball, he was simply Deion. While the documentary focuses on the struggle Sanders had in trying to play the two games, Rodgers said the story is about more than sports.

“The battle between baseball and football, where the baseball world was very, very upset with him…was really just a stand-in for the battle between Prime and Deion and how he had to decide which he was going to be,” Rodgers said. “Even though this is a sports story, at the end of the day, it’s about Deion and Prime.”

“Elway to Marino” had a similar dichotomy in that John Elway was a first draft pick for the Baltimore Colts and Dan Marino was a 27th pick for the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 NFL draft. Rodgers said he had only 44 minutes of archived footage of the 1983 draft, so his crew completely recreated the room in the New York Sheraton Hotel where the draft was held in order to create a central visual motif for the film.

“You sometimes have to look at that material and turn your weakness into your strength,” Rodgers said.

The crew decided to make it look like everyone left, but the room still remained intact.

“What if we made it look like everybody just stood up and left and this room is still here? This room that affected NFL history so markedly—and the cigarettes are still burning in the ash trays and the phones are still there and we’ll interview the agent there.”

Rodger said that in contrast to the more historically-minded “30 for 30” episodes, which allow time for research and preproduction, producing an episode of “Hard Knocks” is like “building an airplane in flight.”

The show follows one NFL team through training camp each season. Rodgers said they film 400 hours each week and have 25 producers to comb through the footage. Each producer is assigned a story line or player they follow throughout the camp. The crew spends the weekend making the show and then begins to feed the episode to HBO on Tuesday nights at 7 for the show’s airing three hours later.

“As new things are coming in and happening up through Monday night, and usually through Tuesday morning, we get it in the show,” Rodgers said. “All you can do is trust your instincts of what is the best hour of the 400 we’ve got.”

Rodgers said there’s no magic formula to making “Hard Knocks,” it’s about finding compelling storylines and the right footage to accompany them. He also spoke of the importance of the crew. While Rodgers produces and directs, every crew member has a vital role in making sure a film is produced.

“Filmmaking is a collaborative artform by its very nature,” he said. “No one can do all the jobs it takes to make a film.”

“Hard Knocks,” in particular, is an “all hands on deck” experience, especially when new storylines develop during the camp, he said.

“It’s a show that shows the truth,” Rodgers said. “Information’s easy to get, anyone can get information, but tell me a story. Make me feel something.”

Dakota Palmer is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.