- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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He has been attacked as a heartless traitor and praised as a hero whistleblower. But documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon says he doesn't think either label applies, even after he injected himself into the most explosive scandal the NFL has seen in years. Maybe ever.
Pamphilon was sitting in his car, waiting for his son's baseball practice to end as he spoke to ESPN.com on his cell phone this week. By the time he was done talking, an hour had rolled by, then two, and a wide range of emotions had spilled out. And one thing became crystal clear: What Pamphilon was hoping to achieve is not exactly what happened after he released an uncensored audio recording from footage he filmed of then Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving a disturbingly graphic speech to his defensive players the night before New Orleans' NFC playoff game against San Francisco in January.
On the recording, Williams can be heard profanely urging the Saints to attack the heads and knees of various 49ers offensive players the following day. He directs his players over and over to "go for the head" of Frank Gore or former concussion victim Kyle Williams and the knees of Michael Crabtree and a "remember me" shot on Niners quarterback Alex Smith as he offered to pay a reward. "The first one's on me," Williams says on the tape.
The 12-minute soundtrack ranks as the most explosive and vivid proof yet of what the NFL believes was a three-year program of bounties on opposing players and under-the-table financial rewards to Saints players who made splashy plays.
"As I sat there, I thought, 'Either this guy really doesn't get what is so wrong about this or he doesn't care,'" Pamphilon said.
Other members of other NFL teams have since admitted Williams' approach was hardly unique.
But if that is all this story is about, the fallout from Pamphilon's choice to release the audio would've been simple. It isn't. Here's the twist: In releasing what he did, Pamphilon went against the wishes of Steve Gleason, a terminally ill ex-Saints special-teams star who had taken Pamphilon into the meeting room that night as a trusted friend.
For months, the two men and Gleason's wife, Michel, had been working on an extremely personal film about Gleason's life as he battles a fast-progressing case of ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease), a fatal neuromuscular disorder that was diagnosed in the 35-year-old Gleason last year.
The project was conceived as both a documentary for wide release and a video journal that Gleason would leave behind for his infant son, Rivers, after he was gone.
So when Saints head coach Sean Payton invited Gleason to travel to San Francisco for that playoff game and Williams then invited Gleason to attend the defensive meeting, Pamphilon and his cameras came along. He was stunned when Williams' speech unspooled as they were filming.
Still, said Pamphilon, he and Gleason didn't seriously discuss releasing it until Williams was independently outed by the NFL two months later. Pamphilon said he went back and dug up the footage.
"And what do you do? What do you DO?" Pamphilon asked. "What I thought releasing this audio would do is create a public dialogue that could not be ignored something that's going to make everyone think and talk. Because before this, people knew bounties existed. But nobody knew what a bounty actually sounded like. How disgusting it is.
"But what happened instead is most of that was swallowed up. The dialogue has shifted to 'Filmmaker betrays dying man.' And how do you defend yourself against a man who you love, when almost everyone says you betrayed him, and it's destroying your reputation? I mean, I love this guy. I love this guy."
They are searing questions.
Numerous people confirm Gleason was very close to Pamphilon, who even wrote an ode to their friendship. Gleason, they say, treated the filmmaker like part of his extended family.
But in the end, both Pamphilon and Gleason made highly personal decisions.
In a statement released last Friday on his website, teamgleason.org, Gleason said he and Pamphilon have a contract for the film project but disagree over its interpretation. And he expressed his dismay that Williams' speech had been released: "I did not authorize the public release of any recordings I included Sean Pamphilon in some of these activities, because I felt my relationship with the Saints was an integral part of my overall journey. The Saints trusted me and gave us unlimited access in filming, and I, in turn, trusted Sean Pamphilon."
Their case has become an excruciating example of the prickly questions that people across football are asking. What should be done about violence and brutality at all levels of the game? And if you are silent about being against it, does that make you "for" it? What should change about how football is played or thought about or administered?
Should a so-called heretic like Pamphilon be shouted down? Or should we save the jeers for the insiders who continue to defend the old-school ethos the game has long glorified?
Football -- especially at the NFL level -- asks people to do the unreasonable. It is no exaggeration to say that players risk their lives and limbs and brains by running full speed into each other for well, for what, exactly? And aren't the most extremely driven players often the best or most glorified men in the game's history? Mean Joe Greene. Night Train Lane, master of the forearm shiver. Ronnie Lott, who once lopped off the tip of a finger to avoid missing a game in the 1986 season. The iconic image of quarterback Y.A. Tittle, mud-caked and kneeling on a torn-up grass field with blood trickling down his face.
The bonds within football remain so strong and the culture of violence is so deeply embedded that it stands to reason it would take a relative outsider -- an outlier such as Pamphilon -- to come in, take a look at how the game is being played and, after immersing himself in the culture for the past two years, say, Wait a minute. This is not right. This cannot stand.
"When people say, 'Well, this has been going on forever.' I want to say, 'Well, then this s--- has got to change up," Pamphilon said.
So again: Did he perform a public service? Or a betrayal?
Can it be both?
Which begs yet another question: Is there such a thing as a forgivable betrayal?
Though Gleason played only the 2007 season for the Saints, he remains close to the heart of both the city of New Orleans and the team. The Saints surprised him with a Super Bowl ring though he retired in 2008, a year before they won their first-ever title. Franchise owner Tom Benson even commissioned a statue outside the Superdome depicting Gleason's block of a punt in the Saints' emotional first game back after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Gleason and Pamphilon met in March of 2011 when the filmmaker was in town to interview another ex-Saints player, Kyle Turley, for another documentary called "The United States of Football." In that film, Pamphilon examines the game from the youth level to the pros. (Pamphilon's completed films include "Run Ricky Run," a documentary about NFL running back Ricky Williams that won a Peabody Award as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. But he works as an independent filmmaker.)
Pamphilon says the still-unfinished "USOF" project was driven in part by a question his dad never had to broach when Pamphilon wanted to play youth football 25 or so years ago.
"If I could ask Roger Goodell one question today, it would be, 'How would you make the case that I should allow my 13-year-old son to play [tackle] football?'" Pamphilon said, adding that when he played in junior high, nobody in sports was talking about repetitive head trauma or post-concussion syndrome or CTE (a form of brain scarring) possibly contributing to the suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson. Back then, football players joked about getting their "bell rung" the same way they told each other to rub mud in their wounds. All part of the gig.
Gleason acknowledged in his statement last Friday that he has been told that ALS perhaps can be caused by impact sports. But as he wryly noted, "I was also made aware of a connection between blue/green algae and ALS."
Gleason also said that with whatever dwindling time and energy he has left, he isn't interested in undertaking battles against rogue coaches or football itself.
On Wednesday of this week, he went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in, a common procedure for most ALS patients. On Thursday, a spokesperson for his foundation, Team Gleason, issued an additional statement to ESPN.com for this column, reaffirming that, "We are steadfast in our mission to bring more awareness to ALS and all neuromuscular diseases with no known cure and little treatment This mission remains our sole focus."
In the 14 months since his diagnosis in January of 2011 -- the same month he and Pamphilon met -- Gleason has gone from walking with a slight limp to using a wheelchair, and from speaking normally to having difficulty with all speech now.
People who have seen the footage he and Pamphilon have shot say it's amazingly frank. And loving. And incredibly bittersweet. It includes everything from the delivery room during Rivers' birth to a Pacific Northwest road trip Steve and a pregnant Michel took in a gray van they nicknamed "The Iron Horse" (after Gehrig).
"What Steve has always wanted to do was make an intimate love story about Steve and Michel, something they could have for their son," said a friend.
And Pamphilon confirms that.
"This issue with football is not Steve's thing, but it's my thing," Pamphilon said.
"Steve's story is an intimate love story between him and his wife. It's so beautiful. And that is what we were working on.
"But as I was sitting in that hotel meeting room that night, listening to Gregg Williams talk, I also thought, 'This is an issue that affects our society.'
"I've been working two years on my other film, and I've talked to women like Sylvia Mackey [the wife of the late Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey] who had to prop up her husband late in life, and held their hands while they cried about how they were left by playing football. I have friends now who played football and struggle with what concussions have done to their brains I've talked to neuro-rehabilitation specialists who say your kid may literally not grow up to be the person they're supposed to be if they have repetitive head trauma blows at too early an age. It doesn't have to be a [full-blown] concussion.
"And that's also why I did what I did, too. After I re-listened to Williams mention concussions as he was talking about targeting Kyle Williams, I thought, 'How would I feel if that was my son?' And what is it about football that allows certain coaches to take liberties and dehumanize people?"
So is what Pamphilon did was right or wrong?
It's complicated. It can be both.
There is a growing body of thought -- and not just in the NFL -- that the ethos and culture of football has to change.
"I can only say that the recording Sean released 'needed' to be heard," ex-Saint Turley wrote Wednesday in an email to ESPN.com. "Football is violent enough & if the players, coaches, owners & operators of today's game don't wake up to the 'reality' of its consequences, we will surely see an end to it."
But as a stark reminder of how far things still need to go, Tampa Bay Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount responded to the release of the Williams audio last week by suggesting it would be flattering to be good enough to be the target of a bounty.
It's easy to mock Pamphilon as some Judas. But the depth of the NFL's commitment to really addressing the consequences Turley mentions seems assailable when you remember the league has said the Saints were warned twice in the past three years about their bounty program before the fines and suspensions were finally brought down on them. What took so long?
Similarly, it was disquieting to read Rams head coach Jeff Fisher's response last week when he was asked to describe what he knew about Williams' coaching style before he hired his old friend. Williams left New Orleans for St. Louis just days after the Saints' playoff loss to the 49ers, but before the bounty scandal broke publicly in March.
Said Fisher: "This was a very extensive [NFL] investigation and there's a lot out there that, I would assume, would not be disclosed. So I have to reserve comment on that I think there's a lot out there that will probably be locked up in a drawer someplace."
At least the audio of Williams' speech won't be among those things secreted away, thanks to Pamphilon.
It stands as the only known example of what an NFL bounty sounds like recorded in real time. Its authenticity has gone unquestioned.
Gleason continues to think it never should have been released. Pamphilon still feels he had to do what he did. Both men claim the same moral ground: Their positions are a matter of conscience, they've said.
But each man also has some regrets.
Gleason because he implicitly trusted Pamphilon and took him into Williams' meeting room. Pamphilon because he bridled last Friday at Gleason's suggestion that he'd violated a moral (if not contractual) understanding. Pamphilon responded that Gleason was only "protecting his own interests" in football.
"That was a cheap shot on my part," Pamphilon says now, "and I want to publicly apologize for it since I said it publicly."
"This has just been "
He sighs, and repeats that "it is very difficult trying to defend yourself in public against a man who has a terminal disease" because the irony is, "I treated Steve like he was living. Not like he was dying.
"I met him not as the person he was before [ALS or the NFL] and I see him as a man living in a very glorious way. I see him as a fighter.
"I haven't seen Steve as dying. I've always seen him as a man gracefully living."
Despite the rift between the two men right now, they haven't ruled out finishing their film project together. But that's no sure thing. It has been only a week since the audio release. They're talking through intermediaries. "So we'll see," a source said.
"I feel deflated and disappointed," Gleason admitted in his statement last week.
"It's been so upsetting," Pamphilon says. "I'm not a sanctimonious jerk But we actually are looking to save people's lives with the other film I was already working on for the year before I met Steve. And I know that sounds corny. We are literally looking to save people's lives. But you can get mocked for trying to be a good person in our society. And my reputation and integrity are my only currency."
He pauses once more. He sighs again.
Now he asks the same question Gleason might reasonably ask of him.
"Did anyone ever think somebody just wants to do the right thing?"
That audio tape of Gregg Williams reveals what an NFL bounty really sounds like. And its release has come between a dying ex-player and a conscientious filmmaker.