BountyGate Plot Twist Shows Limits of Class-Warfare Critique of Football

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For the second time in less than two months, chaotic fallout from Sean Pamphilon’s role as a smoking-gun documenter of the New Orleans Saints’ “BountyGate” scandal has forced him to postpone an interview he was going to do with me for his upcoming film The United States of Football.

In early April, Pamphilon released audio of then Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ demented pep talk to his unit prior to their January playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Now, in a post at his website,, Pamphilon gives more of the background of the recording of Williams, plus Pamphilon’s decision to release the audio.

I have no prayer of doing justice to the timeline of that decision, which Pamphilon recounts in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail. Those of you interested in forensics should thoroughly read both the primary-source piece and Deadspin’s intelligent account of it at

I continue to support what Pamphilon did – not because I claim to fully understand all the ins and outs of his relationships with the various parties involved in the recording of Williams and its release, but because the document itself is such a valuable bottom-line contribution to public discussion of football.

The phrase that jumps out at me is the quote from Scott Fujita on how the audio is “an indictment [of] the culture of football.” Once a Saint, now a Cleveland Brown and under suspension by the National Football League for his alleged participation in the bounty program in New Orleans, Fujita is the Zelig of the story: linebacker, NFL Players Association leader, and thoughtful spokesperson for good causes. He was also a kind of go-between for Pamphilon and Steve Gleason, the former Saints player who now has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as well as a shuttle diplomat between Pamphilon and the NFLPA, which seemed to have a murky agenda of its own in seeking the release of the Williams tape, so long as the union’s fingerprints weren’t on the process.

If the agenda was murky, maybe that’s because everything about this story and this sport is so. As Deadspin wraps up, Pamphilon “has done the service of showing the NFL as the morally conflicted place it really is.”

But I think there’s a piece missing from the analysis, and Fujita’s word, “culture,” puts its finger on it. The cultural critique of football was also the focus of Patrick Hruby’s thoroughly reported article in Wednesday’s Washington Times, “Illegal contact: Nanny state regulators to blow the whistle on football?”, (I preferred Hruby’s rhetorically neutral Twitter tease over the Times headline. “Is football brain trauma the newest front in the partisan culture wars?” Hruby asked.)

There are many people debating football’s future, people whose views I often share, who believe the concussion saga is a story of upper class vs. working class, or white vs. black, or elites vs. hayseeds. I don’t, exactly. Maybe back when Teddy Roosevelt was cleaning up the Ivy League. Maybe when the Huey Long character, played by Broderick Crawford, was pushing his football-playing kid to ruin in the movie version of All the King’s Men. But not in the global marketplace inhabited and dominated by the modern NFL.

Nor do I think viewing football safety primarily as an occupational health issue, governed by collective bargaining between management and labor, has any hope of getting to the root of the problem. The truth is that very, very, very few of the millions of football-obsessed people in this country, including very few of the millions who play it, make a living from it. So the broad conversation here is not analogous to one about the urgency of strengthening the United Mine Workers.

For those paying attention, the Dave Duerson story exposed the complicity of the NFLPA – a guild, really, much more than a union – on the wrong side of a public health issue. The Pamphilon-Fujita angle of BountyGate provides further such hints. The canvas of this painting ain’t Marxist or even Marxian. It may not even be Newtonian. As my friend Matt Chaney likes to say, “Football defies gravity” – even the magnetic pull of conventional economic and political physics.


Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick