Inside the nasty question of whether gratuitous mayhem is a strategic element of pro football is a question of a different kind. It involves former New Orleans Saints standout Steve Gleason and a film-maker named Sean Pamphilon, who’s making a documentary about Gleason’s struggle with the degenerative disease that is slowly taking his life.
This raises issues of trust and discretion, of the obligations the person who chronicles a life has to the person who’s living it. It’s also about the often brittle reception given to anybody who sees wrongs that need exposing, takes a deep breath, and blows the whistle.
For the past year Pamphilon, who previously made a well-received film about ex-Miami Dolphin Ricky Williams, has been working closely with Gleason on a feature-length documentary. Gleason was diagnosed with amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in early 2011. He last played for the Saints in 2006 but has maintained warm ties to the organization. He has access to Saints facilities, he’s invited to watch games from choice seats, and he even received a Super Bowl ring, although he left before their 2010 championship.
So it wasn’t surprising that Gleason—and the film-maker—were in the Saints’ locker room in January when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams delivered the fierce pre-game speech that later cost Williams his job and became powerful evidence in the National Football League’s investigation into whether players were instructed, and even paid, to mangle opponents.
Williams literally targeted specific San Francisco 49ers his defense would face in the next day’s playoff. He identified physical vulnerabilities for his boys go after: an ankle here, a knee there and, especially, heads—a particularly choice comment at a time when the NFL was finally acknowledging the horrific toll of serial concussions.
Pamphilon, the film-maker, recorded Williams’ clubhouse exhortations. Earlier this month he posted the audio on his website, and it was clear the tape would play a role in the league’s two-month-old investigation.
Still, the release hasn’t been universally applauded.