The New Orleans Saints' bounty saga – aka the Scandal That Keeps On Giving – has officially veered into reality-show territory, with Friday's revelation by Y! Sports' Jason Cole of a pay-for-injury "ledger" providing a titillating encore to the previous day's scorched-earth essay by documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon.
From the NFL's initial announcement of the investigation, to the unprecedented punishments doled out to Saints coach Sean Payton and other team officials, to the provocative audio of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' pregame speech, to linebacker Jonathan Vilma's defamation suit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, there has been no shortage of salacious storylines.
In the process, many of the main characters have been turned into caricatures by some of those analyzing the situation: Goodell the Dictator, Payton the Reckless Rogue, Vilma the Villain, Williams the Morally Reprehensible Renegade, Pamphilon the Backstabbing Opportunist, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita the Scheming Hypocrite.
Wow. Just wow.
As a columnist not inclined to turn his back on juicy material, I'm not complaining. Yet as one of the many human beings who makes his living off this multi-billion dollar industry – and as someone who loves the game of football and wants it to survive and thrive – I'm sincerely hoping we can move past the drama and start focusing on what's really important.
A culture change is upon us, and it's time we all get with the program. This isn't a Saints thing; it's a football thing.
When a future Hall of Famer's suicide immediately becomes a story laced with possible head-trauma overtones, and people like Kurt Warner and Tom Brady Sr. talk openly about fearing for their sons' well-being, it's a strong signal that the concussion problem isn't going away.
The more we learn about the effects of concussions, the scarier the future seems. Pro football may be America's most popular spectator sport, and business may be booming, but its continued proliferation and sustenance is not a given.
If we don't put our heads together and make a sincere and relentless effort to address this crisis, the next generation of Drew Breeses, Terrell Suggses and Tom Bradys may be tearing it up in other sports.
This is where Pamphilon's role, as messy and polarizing as it might be, assumes so much importance. Whereas we can legitimately question the agendas of everyone else involved, writing off Pamphilon's actions as the attention-seeking duplicity of a man who betrayed his dying buddy (former Saints special teams hero Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS) is counterproductive and dismissive of the big picture.
[ Y! Sports Radio: Filmmaker Sean Pamphilon on the Saints' bounty program]
I've known Pamphilon a long time, and he'd be the first to admit that he can be prone to extreme emotional reactions and can be difficult to take. He's got a healthy streak of paranoia, and I philosophically disagree with his decision to publish text messages sent by Brees and Fujita – especially those involving Fujita's private conversations with his wife.
And yet, when it comes to this issue, I am 100 percent convinced that Pamphilon's primary motivating force is a desire to shine a light on the perilous effects of brain-related injuries on so many current and former NFL players – many of whom he has grown close to over the past several years – and an effort to push the people in charge of the sport to effect change.
Pamphilon and I have a mutual friend in Kyle Turley, the former All-Pro offensive lineman who has suffered some scary post-career symptoms related to head trauma. Turley, now a musician, wrote a poignant song that provides a personal and passionate glimpse into the real cost of doing business for so many gridiron warriors.
A year ago, Pamphilon and I were both in the Nashville studio where Turley recorded "Fortune and Pain" – and I promise you that each of us got pretty choked up during those four-plus minutes.
Currently, Pamphilon is working on a documentary called "The United States of Football," which traces back to an overarching question: Would he let his son play football?
Working on that film led Pamphilon to Gleason, and they decided to do a separate documentary on the ex-player's struggle with ALS (and, subsequently, to compile a video archive for Gleason's newborn son). It was Gleason's presence in that team meeting before the Saints' January playoff defeat to the 49ers in San Francisco that afforded Pamphilon, as his documentarian, the access to Williams' now-infamous speech.
And when Pamphilon ultimately decided to release that audio to Y! Sports – with, according to the essay on his website, nudging from Fujita and Brees (both NFL Players Association executive committee members) and the union itself – Gleason issued a statement portraying the filmmaker as a traitor, and Pamphilon became the second least-popular name in New Orleans, trailing only Katrina.
Personally, I wish he hadn't scorched the earth with his essay, but at least he's focused on the enormity of the problem, and on the truth. Gleason is fighting the brave fight (he and Fujita spoke at the United Nations' Social Innovations Summit on Thursday), and I can't even imagine the pain and fear that he and his loved ones are experiencing on a constant basis. That said, I think his (and his advisors') reaction to the release of the Williams audio was the wrong one, and it helped inspire many cynical citizens to do the same.
Gleason's interest seemed to be in protecting his reputation with the team that once employed him (the Saints) and its fans, at any cost. Personally, I don't think Pamphilon's decision to release the tape – which was his legal prerogative – should have been so upsetting to Gleason. He wouldn't have been vilified for having indirectly added to the adversity facing the franchise nearly as much as he feared. People would have understood.
Given that Gleason's very condition may have been caused by head trauma, and that this was an issue that transcended his personal struggle, I believe he should have toned down his public objections.
It's also apparent that the NFLPA, with Fujita and Brees as emissaries, had an agenda linked to the release of the Williams audio – mostly, the bolstering of its case that players being investigated by the league were simply carrying out their coach's orders – all of which makes the union's subsequent statement that it was "somewhat disappointed" by Pamphilon's decision somewhat disingenuous.
Yet I can't fault the NFLPA for doing what unions do: looking after the interests of its dues-paying members. It may not be popular or egalitarian, but executive director DeMaurice Smith and his subordinates were simply doing their jobs.
My job requires me to spend a lot of time discussing and digesting these intricacies, and over the last couple of days I've had numerous conversations with people involved in this made-for-reality-TV scandal. I have no problem doing that; it's good theater, and there's a healthy share of comedy. (My personal favorite: the text message that Fujita and I jointly received this morning, from Pamphilon. "I am coming to Cali in a couple weeks to interview Silver and a few others to finish my USOF film," it read. "I don't want to interview you, Scott, but I am an honorable man, accountable for all my actions. I would like to see you face to face and hear anything you have to say, looking me directly in the eye. If you want me to sign a waiver that says I won't press charges, I will happily take your best shot right in my face. This issue is way bigger than both of us and my commitment to it has never wavered. I sincerely valued your friendship which is the reason I will stand in front of you and hear anything you have to say or take anything you have to give. I don't expect you to answer this. I will let you know my dates when I find them out … if not, anytime in the future, the offer still stands … " For the record, I normally wouldn't consider revealing the contents of a private text message, but, well, you know … )
It's also true that my job requires me to look forward and to try to offer suggestions about how to make the future a brighter one, and that, rather than rehash the zesty layers of the bounty scandal, is where I'd like to focus my energies in the months and years ahead.
Can football be made safer and, if so, precisely how? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I'd like to help come up with them, and I know a lot of smart, impassioned people involved with the game who'd be down with the cause.
What improvements can be made in terms of diagnosis, treatment and prevention? Can we determine whether a prospective football player is more predisposed to suffering brain-related injuries than the average athlete? Is it possible to, say, find a means of discovering whether if someone is on the road to contracting CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) while he/she is still alive? Are there drugs that can stall or reverse the effects of brain degradation?
I definitely don't know the answers to these questions, but there are some incredibly intelligent doctors and scientists that the NFL and NFLPA should be jointly enlisting toward these pursuits – and that should have happened yesterday.
Football is a great sport, and, again, I want to see it survive and thrive. It's facing a bona fide crisis, and I want to be part of the solution. And while Pamphilon, Fujita, Brees, Goodell and others involved in this saga may seem like caricatures to some of you, I believe they earnestly possess these same feelings.
Together, we can fix this, or at least try our damndest. We have to try. For when you push past all the drama and get a real glimpse at the fortune and pain, it's simply heartbreaking.
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