Just after midnight on April 5th, 2012, I released an audio tape, in conjunction with an article written by Yahoo! Sports journalist, Mike Silver. The repetitive line in the tape many considered “shocking,” was “Kill the head & the body dies.”
It was a coach telling his players how to play the game of football.
It was a metaphor, essentially saying that if you neutralize the opponents best player, you win the game.
The audio has since gained notoriety as being evidence of a “Bounty Program,” set in place by former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. Since his suspension for running said program, it has been stated by several former players that Williams had employed a similar business plan in his previous stops, as an NFL coach. Williams was respected so much for the way he did his job that Saints coach Sean Payton reportedly volunteered to cut his salary in 2009 by $250,00, specifically to hire Williams. It was an unprecedented courting of an assistant coach. I was told by a couple of Saints players that Williams’ contract had a “Fuck you clause,” as he used to tell his players. This meant he had complete autonomy and was in absolute charge of the defense. It can be argued that no defensive coordinator wielded this much power since Buddy Ryan was battling Mike Ditka when they were the Dynamic Duo, coaching the 1985 Super Bowl champion, Chicago Bears.
According to the NFL, the Saints had been warned repeatedly for this behavior, over a three-year period. The “Bounty System” was a program in which cash bonuses were allegedly paid to players for delivering “whack hits” to opponents, in an effort to purposely hurt them. The intention was to injure them and to knock them out of the game, thus giving your team a better chance to win. The audio for the entire 13 minutes I shot of the Williams speech was released uncut, as well as a 3 1/2 minute cut down version. We never released the video. The “master” shot–never before publicly seen picture–is Steve Gleason and his former New Orleans Saints teammate, Scott Fujita.
I was told that Fujita, currently a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, was invited to deliver a pre-game speech. And the invitation came from the recently suspended Saints head coach, Sean Payton. This was a team he hadn’t played for in two years, yet Fujita’s leadership still carried significant weight with the core group he won a Super Bowl title with. Fujita decided against delivering the speech, but made the trip anyway to help chaperone our mutual friend, Steve Gleason, who has ALS.
We were all going to attend the game the next day.
January 13th, 2012 It was the night before the Saints playoff game against the San Francicso 49ers and as per usual, when I showed up with Steve Gleason to places were the Saints were gathered, I was almost always rolling camera. Steve wanted every interaction and every moment captured, regardless of whether it was going to be in our documentary film, or not. The second day I knew Steve, I broached the subject of creating a video library for his child, so he could give his kid pieces of his mind and offer advice on how to live his life. When Steve was diagnosed with ALS, he learned that his life expectancy would be 2-5 years.
This child was due to be born 6 months later.
During Williams’ speech that night, Gleason sat silent, staring straight ahead for most of the talk. Fujita was siting directly behind him. Occasionally Fujita would look down or rest his chin on his hands. For most of the speech, he appeared disconnected from the scene. When Gregg Williams began passing out envelopes for bonuses, at least one seemed to be for a “whack hit,” but most were performance-based, for “turnovers.” As the money was to be doled out, many of the players began playfully screaming, “Give it back. Give it back!”
When I read more about the system later, I surmised that “Give it back,” meant that the money was to be thrown back into the pool.
When they heard “Give it back, Give it back!,” both Steve Gleason and Scott Fujita broke out into smiles. They were witnessing a male bonding moment that most of us who never played in the NFL, simply cannot fathom, or relate to. And because this behavior had never been scrutinized, that very moment didn’t seem wrong. Smiling didn’t seem inappropriate to men who had lived this life.
I had never heard the term, “whack hit,” so my radar never registered the impact of what that meant. Also, I wasn’t paying attention to the coach, but rather trying to shoot two cameras simultaneously. One on Williams power point presentation with my hand held camera, so I could match those images to what Steve and Scott were seeing. But when to coached called for his players to specifically target a man with a concussion history, I felt uneasy about being in a room where this was considered business as usual.
15 minutes after the meeting ended, I was sitting at a table in a room where players and coaches were sampling from a buffet. Scott Fujita and Gregg Williams exchanged pleasantries, as his former coach passed by with a plate of food.
Fujita looked at me and said under his breath, “I can’t believe I used to be that guy,” referring to once being part of the scene we had just witnessed.
Much as he had in the previous eight months I knew him, the 33-year-old Scott Fujita expressed a distinct disconnect with the tackle football culture, which he had been immersed in for the better part of 25 years. He no longer gave impassioned pre-game speeches, even to his current Cleveland Browns teammates. In fact he told me (on camera) three months earlier–and on a few other occasions–it was all but certain, he would be retiring after the 2011 season. So this was clearly a man looking in the rear-view mirror and reflecting on some things he regretted from the road less traveled.
Scott Fujita and I had many conversations previous to January 13th, 2012 about the implications of brain trauma as a result of playing tackle football. I had already interviewed several doctors and specialists about the game’s lasting affects on football players, from pee wee to the pro’s. My project was to be a cultural examination of football in this country and an intimate portrait of the life-cycle of the football player. I have been a huge fan of the game since I was seven, but stopped playing it in Junior high school. I never played tackle.
“The United States of Football” started out as my journey to find out whether or not I wanted to let my son play.
As a member of the NFLPA’s Executive Committee, Fujita was one of the most outspoken players in the league when it came to protecting players. In fact during the NFL lockout the previous summer, an impassioned Fujita e-mail was published and disseminated nationally.
“…More and more, our brothers fall victim to ALS, dementia and depression, among other afflictions. My heart screams for these men. Add to that the hip and knee replacements that are sure to come up in 10,15,20 years after we stop playing. And through the whole PR battle that’s currently being waged, in what some are calling a battle of greed between “millionaires and billionaires,” the players have asked for nothing. Ultimately, we just want to be taken care of after we leave this game.
My message to the NFL: You say you care about us…Now please, prove it. For the sake of guys like (former players who passed away or were crippled from playing football) Andre Watters, O.J. Brigance, Orlando Thomas, Earl Campbell and Mike Webster…prove it.” (Spring 2011)
Just a couple months later, after the lockout had ended, I visited Fujita and interviewed him on camera–in uniform–after the Browns training camp practice. By this time I had been shooting my film, “The United States of Football,” for nearly 16 months. I asked Fujita if he had a 12-year old son, would he let him play?
“If I had a son, fuck no I would never let him play football! And this is my journey my wife and I decided to take on. But I wouldn’t want that for one of my kids. No way in hell!”
His response was emphatic and without a second of hesitation. It made me immediately question why I was still considering letting my own son play the game.
Fujita followed that up by saying he tells guys in the locker room that soccer would be America’s national sport within the next generation. Also, the worlds best athletes would no longer be subjecting themselves to the consequences and results of playing tackle football.
All conversations had transpired before that January 13, 2012 “Bounty-Gate” speech Gregg Williams delivered.
Our mutual friend, Steve Gleason, had been diagnosed with ALS a year to the week, before that speech. During the filming of our documentary (exclusively about Gleason) I had literally seen Steve lose a tremendous amount of his motor functions. That weekend in San Francisco, Scott would help towel dry Steve off after a shower, put on his shoes for him and zip and un-zip his pants for Steve to urinate. I shot most of this for the documentary I was shooting about the journey of Steve and his wife Michel, as they face the uphill fight against a disease, which only travels downhill. Fifteen minutes after listening to Gregg Williams ask his players to go to the head of other players, specifically targeting a player with a concussion history, Scott Fujita was feeding Steve Gleason because his friend no longer had the dexterity to comfortably eat by himself.
On March 2nd, 2012, the NFL announced that Gregg Williams was going to be punished for running the “Bounty Program” in New Orleans for the previous three seasons. He had recently been hired by the St. Louis Rams, but would soon be suspended. It was publicly disclosed that the program had existed during the time that Fujita played for the team. I had never heard of such a program and Scott had never talked to me about it.
Two days later I reached out to let him know that I had discovered “clean audio” of Gregg Williams speech, covered exclusively with the image of he and Gleason. We were sitting where Gleason chose to, which was in the back of the room, near the exit. I had the continuously running camera facing the two of them because they were the “primary” action in the scene and Gregg Williams’ speech was a non-factor, so it did not matter that the camera was facing away from the speech giver. Gregg Williams wasn’t the story and I wasn’t concerned about his audio level.
On March 7th, 2012, Fujita texted me and said he was “appalled” by what Williams had said, but because of his personal feeling for his former coach, he wasn’t going to be comfortable using the audio, even if it were “desperation time.” I had already broached he idea of making it public. By this time Fujita had been informed that he was under investigation by the league and players names were quite possibly were going to be made public.
He was clearly concerned.
I let him know that because I had been shooting his conflicted feelings about the game of football for the previous year, it would not seem like revisionist history, or damage control, if he continued to be honest. I had never met the guy he “used to be,” but certainly felt the guy I knew had a message to share about the realities of football. I wanted to make sure it was heard and not dismissed because of these newfound revelations. Also, he is fearless and speaks his mind and was going to be a powerful voice in my documentary.
In addition, I admired him greatly for his public support of same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. Most athletes won’t say anything straying from the party line. In addition, he was my friend and I didn’t want him screwed over and misunderstood because I felt strongly we needed more stand-up men like this in the world.
On March 14th, 2012, Scott Fujita sent myself and Steve Gleason a text, which was in response to Steve’s concerns about whether or not the tape should be made public. I had been lobbying HARD for days, claiming in a text to Gleason and Fujita that we had a civic responsibility. Scott had already told me he and his wife were both “sick about it.” He texted that he was once “semi-complicit” in that culture. which made him feel even worse. 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.
INSERT CIVIC DUTY TEXT
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.
March 18th, 2012, We were at Steve and Michel’s modest 2-bedroom house in New Orleans. First I spoke to Steve Gleason on-camera, for an hour. And then I spoke to Steve and Michel together for another hour and showed them a significant amount of footage for my USOF film. I showed them wives having to take care of their fallen husbands and hoped they would relate to the message. Steve tells me that the only way he would consider releasing the audio would be if not only the Saints were in favor of the release, but Scott Fujita and Saints superstar quarterback Drew Brees, as well.
Later that night I texted Steve and Scott, “I am dropping my current request, but I regret deeply the missed opportunity. That audio would have had a real cultural impact.” I reiterated a point I had made to both of them before. I felt possessing this material could potentially put me in danger because it was so damning to the National Football League and the culture Fujita had referred to as “archaic” four days earlier. Perhaps this was misguided, but it made me VERY uncomfortable.
30 minutes later I texted Gleason and suggested he play the tape for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, but to please not mention I was in possession of it. Steve never showed the tape to Loomis, as far as I know. Two days later I had suggested he not show Loomis until after the player punishments were doled out.
In the aftermath of the scandal breaking, my good friend and former New Orleans Saint, Kyle Turley had called Drew Brees out publicly. He challenged Brees to stand up and speak to whether or not he knew about the program. Brees texted Kyle and later that evening they spoke for over an hour. Drew repeatedly denied he knew anything about it. Subsequently, Kyle stated publicly that if Drew gave him his word, that was good enough for him.
Because Scott Fujita was a defensive leader of that 2009 Saints, Kyle felt he would have first-hand knowledge of what was going down and he should have stood up and put a stop to it. “He’s not just a player, he’s a player advocate,” Kyle fumed. “The dudes on the Executive Committee. Are you shitting me?”
In detailed texts I told Kyle that Scott was a principled man who was doing great things with the National Football League Players Association and that he cares about the suffering of former players, greatly. I told Kyle to trust me. “Fujita is a stand-up guy, PLEASE leave him out of this when you do radio shows and t.v. appearances.”
It was apparent to me that all during this time Scott Fujita felt this audio would address a public heath concern. He knew it was quite significant, but he was clearly torn because of the Gleason’s personal concerns and quite understandably, he had considerable love and affection for his former teammate, who was now living with ALS. I empathized with him because neither Steve, nor myself was truly willing to stand down from our positions. It was as if Scott was hopelessly stuck between the irresistible force and immovable object. And Steve and I were destined to collide with full force.
I agreed to table it for the time being and lobbied to at least be able to use it in my documentary, “The United States of Football.”
March 22nd, 2012–Scott Fujita texts me from the NFLPA player rep meetings in Florida. He requested I send the audio to him so he could play it for the NFLPA’s investigative lawyers. I texted Scott that we had just found footage from a second camera, with Gregg Williams on camera giving the speech. We would send both of them Florida. The following day Scott reached out for Michel Gleason’s blessing to play this audio for the NFLPA and she gave him the “okay.” Somehow Michel had moved into the position of being the person who was making this call. I didn’t feel that was appropriate and a palpable chasm developed between us.
March 24th, 2012–By this time I am aware the NFLPA leadership knows that I am in possession of this explosive material. According to Scott, they plan to make the NFL aware that they know of the existence of an audio tape of Gregg Williams speaking this way to the team. They planned to do this without actually playing the tape for the league. The NFL knew I was doing a film about Steve Gleason because I had mentioned it to NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello a few times during my failed attempts to land an interview with Roger Goodell. By this time I had become a thorn in Aiello’s side and I wasn’t dropping my request to meet with the Commissioner.
After the NFLPA decided to approach the NFL, I text Scott and begin to express in a much more strident tone that now I am feeling quite vulnerable and do not feel it is fair to my family, that I am not making this material public, especially with these powerful corporations knowing I have it. Scott implies I am being paranoid and re-asserts his position that Steve, Michel and I need to make this decision for ourselves. Steve clearly texts he still does not grant his approval to the release of the audio. Throughout this entire time, Steve Gleason never considered the fact that contractually–as per our production agreement–I did not need his approval.
In fact, I was only asking for his blessing because I didn’t want to sever my friendship and film project with him. Also I had grown very attached to the extended group of family and friends who I became incredibly close with over the previous year.
But somehow, at this juncture, I also needed the Saints, Fujita, Brees and Michel Gleason all to sign off on this. I began to deeply resent being in what I thought was a no-win situation. I called my former film partner (“playing with RAGE,” and “Run Ricky Run”), Royce Toni to ask him if he would be wiling to finish the project because I was inclined to walk away from Steve Gleason’s film. I just wanted someone I trusted to take it to completion.
March 25th, 2012–In light of the NFL’s decision to destroy the “Spygate Tapes” from 2007, again I express to Scott Fujita my personal safety concerns about not releasing this material, which could potentially be far more damaging to the league, from a public relations perspective. I remind Scott that all players, including himself will one day be former players. That they will be the very men his “heart screams for,” as he wrote in his impassioned e-mail during the lockout. That they might have to deal with the ramifications of men like Gregg Williams targeting their heads. Scott suggests I speak to NFLPA lawyer, Heather McPhee, who convinces me to drop the issue for the time being. Again I tell Steve Gleason I will not be pursuing this matter “in the immediate future.”
Drew Brees texts me later that night, “Hey Sean, hope you are doing alright. I wanted to reassure you of everything. How are you feeling? Drew”
I reiterate my concerns to Drew about my family being vulnerable and the potential fallout for me. I text Brees, the exposure scared the crap out of me because it’s a big deal and an even bigger business.
By this time, Drew Brees is fully aware of the situation and was in consultations with Fujita. Brees is a fellow NFLPA Executive Committee member and had just attended to player rep meetings in Florida for a few days. As with Fujita, Drew was on the public record as being quite concerned about health and safety issues for players in the NFL. He is also reviled by many former players because a few years prior, he was on the record criticizing the men who ran into post-career difficulty because of their poor investments and multiple marriages. It wasn’t understood so clearly when Brees made those comments, but today many within the game realize that these former players weren’t just depressed because the cheering had stopped. They had a difficult time dealing because their heads, not only from concussions, but also, because they had been subjected to “repetitive head trauma.”
There are currently over 2,000 former players who have filed lawsuits against the NFL and plenty of evidence to suggest that the league could have done more to inform the players of the ramifications of the way the game was being played and dealt with medically. I have interviewed the two of the lawyers who filed the initial suit, Jason Luckasevic and Tom Girardi and they are quite confident when they present the facts of this case, they will be victorious.
April 2nd, 2012–By this time I had dropped the issue, altogether. But then Scott re-engages me about the Gregg Williams audio. “Just curious, what is your ‘vision’ for the release of the Saints meeting?”
I text Scott back that I am “waiting for the punishments to be doled out and get your feedback before I do anything. I don’t know if releasing it publicly soon is appropriate because it might seem shady I waited…I just don’t know anymore…”
I explain that this process has exhausted me and my relationship with Steve and Michel is quite strained and that I have asked Royce Toni, to consider replacing me.
As far as the specific use of the audio, I had given up on releasing it and was thinking of using only the picture of he and Steve without the accompanying audio in my film, “The United States of Football.” If Steve would not consent to this, I intended to split the screen and cut Steve out. I would display the words of Greg Willams in white graphics over the black backdrop with Scott staring screen right to screen left. I would interview Scott about how he felt in that moment. At this point Scott Fujita’s feelings about what went down in that room that night were still very much the same. He knew we had witnessed a criminal act and he hadn’t mentioned feeling conflicted about protecting his former coach, in several weeks.
We both knew the science and the ramifications of head trauma. We knew how the release of the Gregg Williams audio would create a moment of pause to consider and reflect on the horrific damage this game has done to many, not all. My long-since stated mission was to provide informed consent and proper care for the children and men who play the game “the right way,” as it is referred to by so many who laud and glorify tackle football. Many of these people refuse to take a realistic look “under the hood.”
A few hours later I read that there might be a possibility of “criminal charges” against players who were part of the Bounty Program and I reach out to Fujita to inquire?
Fujita texts back, “I’m convinced the league doesn’t really have shit on anybody.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow to talk about other stuff,” he concludes in his text.
April 3rd, 2012–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.”
Not even for a second did I pause and consider the NFLPA’s motive for this particular timing. And to this day I cannot say with a certainty. But I immediately got on the phone to Mike Silver from Yahoo! Sports because I respect his talent, appreciate his fearless writing and trust him. Some players have claimed he “burned them” in the past. Often times, that’s a euphemism for, “he told too much of the truth.” This story was going to have a lot of truth.
I have known “Silver” for almost 15 years. The story was finally going to come out and I was going to have this burden off my plate. Scott assures me that Drew Brees is fully on board with releasing the audio. The game plan was Drew would be talking to Steve and Michel to let them know their interests are protected and he supports the move because it will help his Saints teammates. The theory was that the audio would pin everything on their former defensive coach and mitigate the player penalties.
Just before 4pm–with Mike already a few hours into writing the story–Scott texts me, “I’m kind of actually excited about all this. Have no idea what’s going to come of it, but at least I like that my boys (you and Silver) will be famous.”
“That’s the part that scares the fuck out of me,” I text back.
I wanted to release this audio and hopefully affect the change that Scott and I had been talking about for months. Informed consent for children and their parents. A complete paradigm shift in the way coaches deal with players. And more than anything, true awareness of the science and all the ways the game could be improved in order to prevent the suffering of many who had played it at the highest levels. Personally, I have friends who are former players and I believe it is absolutely egregious that vested former NFL players only have their medical costs covered for their first five years, post-football. Many of their maladies appear long after that.
We wanted to aid the plight of the retired players who could no longer function and were either too ashamed of their circumstance, or weren’t mentally capable of self-diagnosing and seeking the help they desperately needed.
Scott reassures me soon thereafter that Drew Brees agrees with the NFLPA lawyers that the audio should be released “sooner the better.” In addition, Scott had left Steve a message telling him as much. At this point I felt we were in lock-step and there would be no stumbling blocks.
At 4:45pm Scott texts me, “Any thought on when the audio will be played for the world? Hearing it is obviously much more alarming than reading it. Just curious.”
Scott follows with a series of texts filling me with a bunch of facts and ideas and suggestions for Mike Silvers article that I can present as my own. I tell him I am only writing what I believe to be true.
At 6:07pm Scott texts me, “You need to write a book when all is said and done. Silver and I will compete for (writing) the foreward.”
Scott continues on with a series of ideas and things I can say in my essay and Silver’s article. At the end of a furious, long stream of consciousness rant, he texts me,
“…consciousness inside the NFL bubble, but blind to reality. That’s the world the NFL wants for it’s constituency. Time for you and Silver to burst the bubble.”
Fujita also alludes to the fact he will eventually write a book exposing the dark side of the NFL. “I have A LOT more material to share with the world!”
Drew Brees calls me at close to 9pm and we talk for about 20 minutes. I am video taping my side of the conversation, as I know I am dealing with powerful people and believe I need an accurate record of what transpired. If this went bad, I knew no one would believe me. Early in my conversation with Brees, I realize that either what Scott Fujita had told me is incorrect, or Drew Brees is calling an audible. Drew is saying we need to “wait for the right time” to release the audio. I inform him that there is no going back and that the article has already been in the works for several hours. I tell him that there is no way I am leaving town (in 34 hours) for 4 days with all of this up and the air. I tell him emphatically, I will not leave my family with all these people knowing about it and the audio still unreleased. As a father of two sons, himself, I expected him to understand.
Two months earlier I had interviewed Drew for “The United States of Football,” in his hotel room in Indianapolis. We were both there for the Super Bowl. Before the brief interview began I handed him a talent release, allowing me to display his interview in the film. Standard operating procedure. Kurt Warner didn’t hesitate signing is and he won a Super Bowl and played in three. The NFLPA Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith didn’t hesitate.
But Drew Brees did a double take and looked me in the eye, “Are these okay?”
There was a pause because I was a bit taken aback. I had been around Drew many times while shooting Steve Gleason the previous months. I had interviewed him for 45 minutes at the Saints facility about Steve. But the USOF wasn’t a biographical film. It was a social commentary.
“They’re okay,” I responded, looking him directly in the eye and tacitly demanding he sign them by creating an uncomfortable moment. They were standard releases. He signed them and we conducted a brief interview. The last question I asked him was about letting my son play tackle football and when would he let his boys play? He said because of the science and information he has gathered, he wouldn’t even consider the possibility until his kids were at least 13. Somehow I forgot those releases in Drew’s hotel room and when I asked for them later that night, he decided his agent needed to look a them first. Thing is, is he had already signed them and went on the record with his comments. Words cannot describe how unprofessional it is for an athlete to do that to someone in my profession. It is literally a Cardinal Sin in my business. I believe it was his marketing agent who balked and said no dice, eventually, without them being able to see the ENTIRE film, first. To sign a release and sit for an on-the-record interview and then back out is beyond professionally inappropriate. It would be like an official taking away a touchdown because “they felt like it.”
His representative told my production partner that he was not interested in seeing the bold headline, “Drew Brees in concussion documentary.”
I never forgot that. Therefore, after that moment, I never trusted Drew to be a stand-up guy, like I knew Scott Fujita to be.
So when I am on the phone with Drew the night before this audio is to be released and he starts talking about waiting for “the right time” to release this audio, I began to get a really bad feeling. I text Scott and am insisting that Drew Brees is “not calling the play” and the All-World quarterback, needs to understand this.
Scott texts back, “He’s probably just really hypersensitive right now.”
I text, “We have been talking specifics all day. If Drew gets bent , PLEASE make absolutely sure that Steve and Michel know that I did not do this rogue.”
April 4th, 2012–Scott texts me at 7:46am and tells me, “Drew will be fine. Just left him a long message. Like I said everyone is hypersensitive right now.”
Drew Brees had just texted me again and mentioned I might release the audio, “uncut” so people wouldn’t think it was tampered with.
Scott immediately proceeds back on point and continues directing me (via text) on things to say in the Silver article and my essay, “Tru Dat”.
He suggests I should mention that Roger Goodell never sat for an interview with me, even though I’m the “biggest advocate for health and safety in the journalism world.” He also mentions I should stroke DeMaurice Smith for being “generous with his time.” I had interviewed Smith for 90 minutes at the NFLPA headquarters in Washington DC about five months earlier.
He texts, “not attempting to tell you what to write (which his clearly was), but it kind of paints of picture of good vs. evil.”
Drew Brees continues to persist in wanting to see my essay but Fujita is content with not seeing it at all. He says its my call, but Drew can be trusted, if I decide to show it to him. My fear was that Drew would send it to his agent or the NFLPA. If he hadn’t been circumspect after our previous interview, it’s possible I would have afforded him this courtesy. Regardless, I wasn’t going to be letting anyone do my job for me and I had made that clear on multiple occasions.
At 3:12 in the afternoon Fujita texts me right after a conversation with DeMaurice Smith and says Smith “brought up the release of the audio and his only question was if it will be released raw or edited?”
This communication is HUGELY important because nearly two weeks later the NFLPA publicly did what I consider to be a disservice toward me. When ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the NFLPA knew about the audio’s existence, the NFLPA released a statement claiming they were “somewhat disappointed” that I released the material.
“Somewhat disappointed?” Really? I guess I didn’t release it fast enough because “sooner the better” was something I understood pretty clearly from sources close to the action.
At 6:09 pm Scott texts me and tells me that he just heard from a friend of Gregg Williams we had met a half-hour after Williams’ infamous speech in San Francisco on January 13th. Williams’ buddy asked Scott to touch base with him. It’s clear by this point that Mike Silver–as he said he would–has done his job as a responsible journalist and called Williams for comment on the release of the audio.
At this point, there truly is NO GOING BACK.
Just after 8pm that night Drew Brees calls and leaves me a voicemail, asking me kindly to send he and Steve Gleason a copy of the 15 page-essay “Tru Dat” because they want to see it before it comes out. He doesn’t know that Scott said he didn’t think they had the right to insist and thought it was my call whether to share the information beforehand. As usual, Fujita was respecting the fact I had a job to do. After all, I wasn’t telling these men how to do theirs.
In the voicemail, Brees never says NOT to release it. He never says Steve is against it, either. He only asks that they be able to read it. They want to see the essay before the audio is released to the public, so they are prepared, he elaborates.
I’m smelling a thick layer of bullshit at this point and feel strongly that if I give it to them they are going to take a red pen to it. The irony is if they knew what I was writing about the Saints, I can’t imagine they would have objected. What they are not appreciating was that I was refusing to do what they wanted. They clearly were not used to that.
Steve texts me after Drew’s call, asking me to e-mail them the essay. I refuse to and say i will read it to them on the phone only if Scott Fujita is on the call with us. In a 4-way text I tell Brees, Gleason and Fujita that I am not going to read the essay unless Fujita is on the phone. Fujita declines, says he has given his opinion to all of us and that he is done speaking on the issue.
I am completely STUNNED. The day before Fujita had asked me if I was afraid of losing access to subjects by going public with this material. I told him I felt my work transcended sports and if I didn’t have access to team facilities, I could care less because none of my best work was done there. Plus, I get into people’s homes and they trust me because I am heart-centered and never try to be something I’m not, which is the exact opposite of what most athletes deal with each and every day.
My real fear, I told Scott was going doing something of this magnitude and be stranded without teammates. And when he refused to get on the phone, I realized I was now engulfed in my own self-fulfilling prophecy.
I feel like the tag-team I was on disintegrated and now I was playing an individual sport against a beloved quarterback who happens to be Madison Avenue’s wet dream. Drew Brees is cast as the perfect guy and a few months earlier I had professed to my fiancee my unabashed man crush for this dude. Once he started calling me by my first name and giving me the bro-dog handshake, I was pretty stoked. I NEVER get that way around athletes. I just thought this man was top-shelf in every way, on and off the field.
But even more daunting than being pitted against Drew?
I’m also feeling cornered by the man who made the play voted by Saints fans as the most significant moment in the history of the franchise.
Steve Gleason blocked the punt that created “the biggest beer spill in history” according to a local, who along with 70,000 fans, lost their mind in that euphoric moment. That single play, which occurred on the teams very first series of downs when the Superdome re-opened after Katrina. In a couple mere seconds, he re-invigorated an entire region. It is “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” for the city of New Orleans. It also occurred on Monday Night Football, on a night when U2 played live. It was EPIC.
Steve is a New Orleans cult-hero and he has a terminal illness.
There is a reason whey the people in NOLA will not consider I just might be telling the truth. Because it will make a mythical figure, quite human. Most people need see their heroes as flawless. I get it.
The worst part for me was that MY teammate, the fellow wannabe activist and free spirit, had just dropped me into the abyss without a second of warning.
Scott Fujita had re-initiated the dialog on april 2nd . Green lit the release on April 3rd. And on April 4th, he was an emphatic cheerleader for the cause…
And then on April 5th, he vanished like Keyser Soze!
If anyone has ever drawn a shittier hand in a game of poker than I was dealt in that moment, please raise your hand. I see no hands and I am sitting here with no chips to play.
I KNOW I am so fucked at this point that I might as well go down with my dignity because there is no way in hell I was going to let these guys think they can do my job.
I refuse to read the essay to Brees and Gleason and Gleason’s next text says what I am doing is “illegal” and he is “NOT” giving me permission to do this. Once again, I never needed him to grant it.
By this time I have broken out into a major stress reaction. My chronic circulatory condition flares up. I am bedridden and on the way to 102.5 fever, which doesn’t break for a few days. So when people thought I was hiding and not available publicly the next day? I was actually in tremendous pain, under several blankets, shivering and trying to sweat out the toxins from my infection.
April 5th, 2012–I am inundated with media requests. News comes out of New Orleans that Steve Gleason’s camp is preparing a statement which says I was “unauthorized” to do this. The first statement in “The Bleacher Report” from “someone in Gleason’s” inner circle states that the footage was being shot strictly for a library for his son, which was categorically incorrect and certainly designed to generate some immediate hatred toward me. I text Fujita looking for his intervention before Gleason’s actual statement comes out. When Fujita calls me, he lets me know that he has spoken to Steve and Michel and he was “crying to them” and was extremely emotional and apologetic toward them.
He did not apologize to me or my family for telling me to release this material, “sooner the better.”
I had been in discussions with Kyle Turley throughout the entire process and he told me not to trust Scott Fujita to the degree I had. Turley told me that over and over. I didn’t listen and was completely embarrassed when I spoke to Kyle after the audio was released. Of course, KT never once said, “I told you so.” He just went out very publicly and said I did the right thing. Since then his musical fan base in New Orleans–the place where he had drawn his biggest support–had dwindled and many people hate him because of his association with me.
Kyle supported my decision even though he used to play football with Steve Gleason. For Turley, this is bigger than team colors. Kyle’s grandfather died of ALS and to this day the “Turleyband” plays benefit concerts for Team Gleason. At the last show he played in NOLA, there was a sparse crowd and not a single Team Gleason member came to support. Kyle sought Steve out and gave him his appearance fee and the modest monies raised from the event.
Kyle Turley is a true stand-up guy and you will never find a more loyal teammate.
April 6th, 2012–Steve Gleason’s camp releases a statement which says that I wasn’t “authorized” to do this. The public perception of my action completely shifts and the dialog changes from Gregg Williams’ criminal behavior, asking his players to assault with the intent to injure other players, to “filmmaker betrays dying friend.”
At 4:29pm in the afternoon–after Gleason’t statement had spread and according to Google, it had been reported over 1,600 times.
Scott Fujita texts me and says that he has been in touch with Gleason’s camp. “I think they’re hoping to find a peaceful resolution to all of this and that someone from their camp might be reaching out to you. I just feel like there has to be a way for everyone to move forward & make something positive with all this. Now I am shutting my phone off again:)”
45 minutes later I release a statement through Yahoo! Sports!. We shared our production agreement we had with Steve and Michel Gleason. The contract clearly showed we were not in violation of the agreement. The contract stated in the event that the two production companies making the film had a disagreement, there was a 5th voting member to break ties on all of our important decisions. We redacted that 5th name and have never made it public.
In the Yahoo article I also mentioned that we had a “third party” who was acting as an intermediary between Steve and I and that person told us to release the material, “sooner the better.”
The 5th voting member and the “third party” obviously agreed with our decision to release the material because they were the same person.
April 9th, 2012–I am still trying to find a way to create peaceful resolution. I hear that Steve Gleason is in town for a couple days and staying with Pearl Jam guitarist, Mike McCready, who is going to be doing the music for the Gleason project. I send a skit I have written to Steve and his representatives. The idea is to make light of the situation and show our solidarity. Steve’s lawyer sends and e-mail and says “Steve laughed for the first time in four days,” after reading the skit. SKIT TEXT
I text Drew Brees and Scott Fujita and let them know I have Non-Disclosure Agreements I am willing to sign and for this to be behind us and move forward. Steve vacillates regarding the skit idea and what could have all dissolved in laughter, would now drag on and put everyone at further risk.
Fujita immediately responds regarding the NDA and gets the ball rolling with Heather McPhee, the NFLPA lawyer who would be contacting me. I speak to Heather and explain that I am going to give Scott (and only Scott) an NDA and this matter will not be spoken about publicly. This is to be a deal between Scott and myself. I hadn’t heard back from Drew and Gleason still, had not agreed to doing the skit. I just felt at some point soon Scott would stand up and tell the truth, or I would have to do it. I proposed the NDA because I didn’t want to lie for him, but I also didn’t want to publicly out a man who I thought had good intentions, but he made a horribly soft decision in a moment where strength was called for.
Within the hour McPhee sends back an agreement that not only covers Scott but, “all NFL players,” with regard to the topic of the Gregg Williams audio. This agreement was clearly not what I had spoken to her about and there was no way for that conversation to be misinterpreted. The only assumption I could make was that other NFL player she was concerned about, must have been Drew Brees. I thought of those releases in Indianapolis and asked my producer to change the NDA to the reflect our original intention. Only Scott Fujita was getting that NDA.
I send Fujita a text at 2:26pm “I wish you would not have sent me to a (NF)PA lawyer. That smells a little shitty.”
Fujita responds, “Just send the NDA. Once you sign & e-mail to me, I’ll sign and send a copy back to you. Thanks buddy.”
I text back shortly thereafter, “What I spoke to Heather (McPhee) about was not reflective of the conversation we had, as it relates to this contract and I was very specific with her. Justin is writing something up that covers you. I will have a signed copy in your e-mail shortly. I am not discussing this further with you or her, so do not have her contact me. Just say, ‘thank you’ or we move on and you will just have to trust me.”
I sent the e-mail to Scott Fujita with the signed NDA and when I talked to him on the phone I told him I was just signing the one with him because I had every intention of telling the truth at some point and I was sensitive to the position he was put in. He should have never had to mediate between the two different agenda’s of myself and Steve Gleason.
What I failed to grasp in the moment was that I had dropped the issue. Scott brought it back April 2nd and the urging of the NFLPA.
April 10th, 2012–I still had not gotten a signed copy of the NDA back from Scott Fujita by noon the following day. I texted him, “That release, which protects you, isn’t valid for us both until you sign it and send it back to me. I’m getting a strange vibe off you, Scott.”
When McPhee sent the mutual non-disclosure agreement, it was structured for both of us to sign.
She sent an e-mail saying, “Agreements have more validity if they are executed by both parties.”
To this day, Scott Fujita never executed that NDA.
April 13th–2012–The NFL Security office calls me four times and is asking that I turn over the Gregg Williams tapes to Roger Goodell’s office. I text Scott and ask him to contact me regarding this matter.
April 14th, 2012–Scott Fujita texts me, “I would ignore the NFL if I were you. They clearly want the tapes to see if there’s anything they can use to further implicate players, mainly because they don’t have shit, other than heresay and anecdotal evidence of tough talk. I’ve been denying their request for an interview for weeks now because there’s nothing good that can come out of that. That’s why it’ll be hilarious when I show up at their offices on Monday with the rest of the Executive Committee to discuss other issues. No more NFL talk. Fuck them.”
April 19th–Two days after Drew Brees is quoted in a published report that there is no meaningful “evidence” that a bounty system exists, I sent Scott a text saying, “Are you gong to leave me to hang out to dry, publicly, Scott? I”m getting fucked hard and my future is at stake. Do any of you care? I don’t need you in this film (“The United States of Football”) but I thought you had more character than this. I am a fucking human being with a family. Seriously. I took care of you on my own accord and you are sitting back, talking to lawyers while the wolves eat me alive…wake the fuck up, dude and listen to your goddamn conscience.”
Soon thereafter I take Scott Fujita’s picture off our website and let him know we are no longer interested in him participating in “The United States of Football.”
May 17th, 2012–After weeks of misinformation and speculation about my motivations, I travel to NFL headquarters in New York and go to the front desk and ask to speak to Roger Goodell. I tell them I am there to show him the Bounty-Gate tapes. I also bring a note for him. My request is refused but I was told the note would be passed along if I showed the footage to their security team. I didn’t show them the tape with Steve and Scott on it, but I showed them the tape that had a mere minute and 19 seconds of Gregg Williams on it. I let them listen to both tapes. For the first time they heard it without any audio distortion and could completely pick up what was being said in the room. They were taking notes and at one point asked if we could send them another audio source. My film producer complied.
A few weeks earlier their reporter Albert Breer had written that I had “Secretly” taped that meeting with Gregg Williams. In addition, when one of Steve Gleason’s many legal advisors, implied I might have done something illegal, I thought he must be kidding. I smoked weed with that dude in his kitchen in New Orleans shortly after we met. This was all becoming too surreal. But I wasn’t laughing.
All of this has damaged me significantly in the pubic eye. As an independent filmmaker, who specializes in intimate stories which require trust, being depicted in this way, is devastating. This does not go away without considerable explanation and clear facts.
I went to NY to clear my name and to tell the NFL to please not allow anymore to disseminate incorrect information about me to anymore lapdog league journalists. And when I released my statement (this one), I wanted them to release theirs, stating that I cooperated fully. The NFL agreed to respect this request and I texted an NFL security representative this morning to make them aware I was going public to defend my name.
I just wanted all this to be over. I wanted my kid to be able to google me without fear of being upset by all the venom. I just want people to really understand why I did this and nearly 10,000 words later, I hope I have made myself clear.
May 21st–I text Scott Fujita, “I sent you an e-mail. I am in serious trouble. I know I have been angry, but please do not tune me out.”
In the e-mail I discuss with Scott the dramatic turn my life has taken, the pressure I am under and the fractures it has caused in my relationships with people close to me. I tell him I need for him to clarify my role in this matter.
My plea for fairness and guidance fell on deaf ears and he does not respond.
May 23rd–The Final Straw…Scott Fujita reports to the first day of the Cleveland Browns OTA’s and makes his first verbal statement. He started his first press conference off by saying, “Fire Away.”
As the questions poured forward. He repeatedly referred to a pat answer of, “I stand by my previous statement.”
In that statement he denied ever paying men to hurt other men. In fact, on the day he was suspended, I tweeted that if he ever paid a man to hurt another man, or took money for doing so, I would “cut one of my testicles off and chew on it.”
I believe this with every ounce of my being because I have seen the gentle side of Scott Fujita. I have been in his home and seen him as a doting, loving, sensitive husband and attentive father to his children. I have seen his lips quiver as he cried when he tried not to on multiple occasions. He was talking about his suffering friend, Steve Gleason. I have seen his humanity on many levels, which is the very reason I wanted to protect him from the scrutiny I have endured since he told me “the sooner the better,” on April 3rd.
But what I haven’t seen is that concern for my circumstance, my reputation and my family, reciprocated.
As his 10-minute press conference continued, he grew agitated when talking about his future. He spoke of getting a masters degree in “Education” and wanting to teach someday. And if that opportunity was somehow affected by this scandal, he said point blank, “I am not okay with that.”
But somehow my career credibility combusting is okay?
In no way is this intended to be a cheap shot, but there is no chance hell I would allow this man to teach either of my sons, an ethics class.
As his press conference continued, there was one particular sound bite that caught my attention and offended me so deeply, I was prompted to share these facts in this fashion.
“We’ve all been in locker rooms where inappropriate things are said, that are over the top and sound highly inappropriate to the rest of the world,” he said. “But I’ve been in some locker rooms through high school, college and the league, it sounds crazy, but players for the most part just laugh it off and, ‘Hey, that guy’s just being crazy.’ The tape itself, it wasn’t evidence of anything, other than a coach saying some inappropriate things.”
-Scott Fujita, Cleveland Browns Linebacker, NFL Executive Committee Member.
When he said that the tape wasn’t evidence of anything, I that felt like he stuck his football helmet up my ass and through my ribcage. It hurt that much. If this was true, then why did we spend so much time and energy on this issue? Why did it resonate so strongly with our culture, including those who don’t cheer for the home team on Sunday’s?
This was the first time he had spoken on-camera since the Bounty Gate scandal broke. It was two and a half months since he and his wife were crying in bed and lamenting the fact that he had been “semi-complicit” in a football culture that “desensitized” him to the suffering of another.
I didn’t write a book like you suggested Scott, but rest assured, this was certainly the hardest chapter of anything I have ever had to write in my life.
I still consider you a man of convictions who wants to impact our culture and inspire social chance. My hope is that you will search deep and embrace your core nature. I still love you like a brother and hope that one day you will be able to say those words to me as you have on several occasions. I have cleansed myself with the truth and am happy to forgive. If you are the man I think you are, one day in the future you might call me and tell me you forgive me for doing the one thing I have said I would do, ever since you met me.
Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was skeptical and in a column he wrote about Scott Fujita’s press conference. He wondered if this man who was a staunch advocate for player health and safety might be wearing both a public and a private face?
“Perhaps he wasn’t in the room,” Livingston wrote when referencing Gregg Williams’ speeches from the 2009 season when Scott Fujita was a team leader on a Saints defense that delivered “remember me” hits at the behest of his defensive coordinator.
I can’t say for certain if Scott Fujita was in those meetings or not. But I had a camera locked on him during the entire speech on January 13th, 2012. He most certainly was in that room in San Francisco the night Gregg Williams asked his charges to go upside the head of a player with a concussion history, knowing full well that head trauma can lead to CTE. Knowing that head trauma can lead to early on set dementia. And intimately understanding by looking at the man a sitting a foot in front of him, that head trauma can most definitely lead to ALS. This is not to say that Steve Gleason’s ALS was caused by football.
However, ALS is several times more likely in NFL players than it is for the rest of us regular folks, walking down the street not tackling anybody.
Scott’s heart was clearly conflicted that night as he sat behind his former teammate, Steve Gleason. Steve was sitting still in a wheelchair flanked by his cane. Scott’s face was stoic and you could see that he wasn’t proud of some of the things he had done. He took no pleasure in anything that was being said and exhibited not an ounce of nostalgia as he stared straight ahead, clearly in a trance-like state.
But suddenly, both Steve Gleason and Scott Fujita had grins on their faces as envelopes were being passed out by Gregg Willams and the players all started chanting, “Give it back! Give it back!”
Once again, it’s a feeling we will never know and most of us could never relate to. But given everything we know about head trauma and the severe damage to many who play this game, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from this scene. Perhaps because I was shooting two cameras and not fully dialed in. Still, I couldn’t embrace or feel even the slightest bit of levity. Because I know the science–having spoken to the doctors and the specialists–I know the damage they are dong to their brains.
A few weeks ago I sat with a woman who was feeding her husband and wiping his chin. She is the wife of a former NFL player who was diagnosed with dementia a decade ago. The last time I saw them was a year and a half ago on New Years Eve. This man was 55 pounds heavier, back then when I asked her, “When was the last time you kissed your husband on New Years and he knew who you were?”
She asked me to come interview her again because the audio of Gregg Williams speech was haunting her. She kept repeating, “Kill the head, the body will die.”
Today, this former more than sturdy NFL lineman is 6’5 and weighs just over 140lbs. She sweet lady specifically asked me to travel across the country because she wanted me pass a message along to Gregg Williams and to anyone following this story. Her husband has no idea who she is. She thinks he has a month or two left. He was diagnosed a decade ago.
“When you kill the head, the body doesn’t die.”