Commentary: Blowing a whistle on sports cruelty

The Miami HeraldApril 28, 2012 

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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