Cruelty and truth-telling in the NFL

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.  

“Sean Pamphilon is a coward and should be ashamed for taking advantage of Steve Gleason!” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins tweeted.

On his New Orleans Times-Picayune blog, Jeff Duncan observed: “Essentially, Gleason and Pamphilon were part of the team. That’s why Williams was so candid with his comments. He had no idea his speech would ever become public.”

Steve Gleason himself opposed releasing the tape. “The Saints trusted me and gave us unlimited access in filming, and I, in turn, trusted Sean Pamphilon,” he said.

Breach-of-trust was key to a broadside from Sports Illustrated heavyweight Peter King. Pamphilon, he wrote, “betrayed the wishes of a dying man and a former very close friend ….”

King, sportswriter of the year in 2010, continued:  “What’s morally right is that Pamphilon, who never would have heard what Williams said without being attached to Gleason, shouldn’t have released the tape without Gleason’s permission.”

Softening toward the end, King allowed: “I cannot find it in my heart to quite call Pamphilon a rat….”

King’s argument is that Gleason, as the documentary’s subject, was entitled to control the use of material recorded during the film-making, especially where the recording couldn’t have happened without the access Gleason’s presence enabled.

Now, that’s a proposition journalists find abhorrent, but it’s fair to say documentary film has a different ethical tradition, and film-makers don’t always insist on the independence from source control that journalists demand.

Instead, documentarists often arrange collaborations with their subjects bordering on co-authorship. Some argue, compellingly, that since they’re telling the subject’s story, they’re honor-bound to enlist the subject in fashioning that story.

This was the case with Pamphilon and the ailing ballplayer, King suggests.

But? Does that bond relieve the film-maker of responsibility to bring to light evidence of egregious wrongdoing (unrelated to the film), even when his collaborator fears disclosure might displease people who’d been kind to him?

Here I think the criticism goes off the rails. Pamphilon was inadvertently witness to an appalling instance of near-criminal behavior. Athletes were being urged—and all but bribed—to maim, even cripple, opposing players. Even a lawyer may ignore confidentiality if a client discloses plans to do harm. Suppose the coach had been promising pre-teen call girls for the post-game?

That Pamphilon was there to chronicle Gleason’s struggles is no more relevant than if he’d been bringing in fresh towels. He heard what he heard, and he should never have paused before coming forward.

Still, whistleblowers rarely have an easy time of it. Their motives are doubted, and their methods are impugned. Fact is, their disclosures rarely profit them. It’s the rest of us who benefit.

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4 thoughts on “Cruelty and truth-telling in the NFL

  1. Professor Wasserman,

    Finally some sanity on a difficult issue. Thanks for a well-written statement about who is at fault and who is not.

  2. I just read and reflected on your “Blowing The Whistle” article. As a long time Saints fan I certainly find all of the revelations (now of course with eavesdropping) disheartening at best and tainting a terrific come back story for a team and entire town at worst.

    In general I agree with your viewpoint with the exception of Pamphilon’s actions and desired outcome. I do not think he should have released any information without Steve Gleason’s approval. That was their deal and condition of doing business and Sean Pamphilon agreed to it.

    That being said, if someone witnesses something illegal or unethical and they believe they must report it for the good of those involved then I would agree with you that he should have “never paused before coming forward”. The problem I have with Sean Pamphilon is the way he came forward. Was releasing this information to Yahoo Sports the best way to do this? Sean could have easily given this to the office of Roger Goodell and waited to see how they wanted to use it to make sure justice is served (which is now what seems to be Mr. Goodell’s main role as judge, jury and executioner). Sean could have done this in good faith to the truth and still kept a promise to Steve Gleason. It would show he was just trying to do the right thing without drawing attention to himself.

    Instead…Sean gets a lot of attention and PR by releasing it to Yahoo Sports where the commissions office hears about it as the same time as the rest of us. Now does that sound like a documentarian who is truly acting noble or is it one who knows how to generate some attention for them self?

    It is not just about acting but how you act counts too. Sean Pamphilon may have needed to act in your opinion but I don’t see how you can defend the way he acted.

    1. I didn’t pay attention to that element, and after reading your note think that maybe I should’ve. My chief concern was with the contention that the disclosure was unethical, which I don’t buy. Beyond that, though, the manner in which Pamphilon chose to make the disclosure is, I think, a legitimate area of criticism. Here, the question you raise is whether he did wrong by going public instead of sharing the tape privately with the NFL, and then, as you suggest, releasing it publicly only if the league didn’t respond appropriately.

      I guess I come down on the side of public disclosure. The controversy was already in the public sphere, and misinformation was rampant. This information was solid. There’s a good argument that only an informed fan base would keep the NFL’s feet to the fire. Plus, I’m a little bothered by the prospect of Pamphilon, by implication, using the threat of public disclosure to force the league to react in a way that satisfies him. That seems a troubling use of the information he had in hand, and though it wouldn’t have been extortion, feels uncomfortably close.

  3. It sounded like many of the club house speeches… If you really listen he is telling his guys to get after them….Make them think, get into their heads.. Actually in that particular game, the only player hauled off the field was Pierre Thomas a New Orleans Saint… did the guy that injured him (in what I think was an illegal hit helmet to helmet) get payed a bounty??? MMMMM

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