When documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released the Bountygate audio back in early April, was he acting on his own? The recording, a now-infamous four-minute clip of New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams telling his players to "kill the fucking head" against the 49ers, was made while Pamphilon was working on a documentary about former Saint Steve Gleason, who has ALS. Gleason has since accused Pamphilon of double-crossing him by releasing the tape, after the Saints had granted the filmmaker extraordinary access to team meetings.
Thursday evening, Pamphilon posted a complicated, 10,000-word essay on his website (after initially approaching Deadspin to publish it as an exclusive, which we declined to do). In the essay, Pamphilon writes that linebacker Scott Fujita—one of the players suspended by the NFL in punishment for the Saints' bounty program, but who now plays for the Browns—was actively involved in the decision to release the audio. Pamphilon offers a tick-tock of his version of events leading up to April 5, the day the tape went public. The gist is that Fujita had been an intermediary between the production team, Gleason, quarterback and player rep Drew Brees, and the NFL Players Association.
According to the filmmaker, Fujita indicated to him on numerous occasions that Brees and the NFLPA supported the decision to release the tape—and the linebacker, who is a close friend of Gleason, cast the decisive vote when the production team made the final call.
Over the phone this morning, Fujita says he had no idea there was any language in the production agreement that gave him that authority. Gleason's lawyer, Thomas McEachin, confirmed that was true in a subsequent interview. "Sean and Steve both told me they didn't convey that to Scott," McEachin says.
In Pamphilon's telling, there was a lot of stage-managing going on behind the scenes—especially by Fujita, and via Fujita, Brees and the NFLPA—to determine how and when the tape would come out. But once Pamphilon released it, everyone involved did everything they could to distance themselves from Pamphilon and the decision.
George Atallah, a spokesman for the NFLPA, acknowledged this morning that the NFLPA had an interest in the audio's release, thinking it would show that any alleged bounty programs were conducted under the auspices of the coaches. But once that message was conveyed to Pamphilon through Fujita, it was Pamphilon who acted alone in releasing the tape through Yahoo's Michael Silver. The NFLPA (and Fujita) saw the tape as Pamphilon's intellectual property, and by all indications, the union was taken by surprise when the audio went public.
Throughout his essay, Pamphilon portrays Fujita as a hypocrite. Pamphilon publishes a series of text messages in which Fujita expresses remorse for having been "semi-complicit" in the sort of "meat-head culture" Williams gives voice to. (Fujita, in a response he texted to me this morning, says he "shared very private and personal feelings with someone I believed was a friend. I am disappointed he chose to share those private thoughts publicly. I believe he is a talented filmmaker and wish him well.")
This is from Pamphilon's essay. The events described here happened March 14, according to Pamphilon:
We had discussed the idea of me releasing it anonymously and had a short list of journalists who I was considering contacting and giving it to. I didn't want to attach my name to it. I feared that if I released it, my motives would be questioned and I would be attacked without justification.
Fujita and his wife had watched the audio with the adjoining video, which to this day, has never been seen by the public. As I recall, by this time Steve and his wife, Michel Gleason had seen the tape, as well. I had asked Steve to do a journal on camera about how a man in his condition felt hearing Gregg Williams' words. Steve and Michel were very upset for different reasons and expressed serious concern about how this would affect Steve's relationship with the Saints. They were emphatic Steve wasn't willing to "burn that bridge." Scott presented both our cases in this extensive text and said he believed the decision should be solely mine and that I should take their opinions into consideration and do what I believed to be the correct thing. He said flatly is should be my call "independent of you and me," he directed to Steve.
Fujita's text went on to say that this wasn't about the Saints at all, but rather it was "an indictment on the culture of football, a big part of which is still archaic & has yet to evolve."
Scott Fujita's anthemic text continued, as he invoked his wife's "shock" at watching the video which made them both cry. "She said she felt sorry for me that I had been part of something for so long that made me desensitized to the suffering of another. Her second thought: People who say things like that to a group of impressionable men, shouldn't be able to lead a group of impressionable men."
Two days later Fujita texted me and said we should probably drop it because Steve and Michel were under tremendous stress and they needed to focus on his wellness. I complied, but I said I would talk to them in person two days later just to explain why I felt it was so important.
Pamphilon says he had dropped the matter until April 2, when he received a text from Fujita, which Pamphilon displays, asking about his "'vision' for the release of the Saints' meeting." Pamphilon responds with this: "I don't know if releasing it publicly soon is appropriate because it might seem shady I waited..."
The next day, April 3, Pamphilon says this happened:
Scott calls me in the late morning and tells me that NFLPA lawyer, Heather McPhee had asked him if his "filmmaker friend" was still interested in releasing the audio. They weren't going to tell me to do it, but If I were still considering this, I might want to do it "the sooner the better."
Publicly, Fujita has denied the bounty charges, and he's expressed only token criticism of what Williams can be heard saying on the tape. Last week, during the Browns' OTAs, Fujita told reporters: "The tape itself, it wasn't evidence of anything, other than a coach saying some inappropriate things."
McEachin, Gleason's lawyer, does not represent Fujita personally. But he does represent Fujita in Fujita's capacity as a board member for Gleason's foundation. He did not mince words when he expressed his view of Pamphilon. "He's trying to maximize publicity for his film, The United States of Football," McEachin says. "It's disgusting and shameless."
Meanwhile, Pamphilon implores Fujita to "be honest," since Pamphilon is the one whose reputation has suffered as a result of the tape's release. But Fujita remains close with Gleason, and he continues to make a living as an NFL player. Pamphilon sees hypocrisy in Fujita's response to the audio, but to play professional football while also being thoughtful on matters of player safety demands cognitive dissonance. It wasn't his intent, but Pamphilon's audio—and the many, many words he's now written about it—has done the service of showing the NFL as the morally conflicted place it really is.
Photo via AP