Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lessons in Introspection: Run, Ricky, Run

Back in 1999, the New Orleans Saints made one of the most aggressive trades in the history of the NFL Draft for the purposes of acquiring running back Ricky Williams. Williams was leaving the University of Texas as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, and in him the Saints were getting an athlete who was determined, elusive and tough to tackle. In short, they were getting someone special, an athlete capable of doing the unusual routinely. The Saints drafted Williams to be their franchise player, but three years later Williams was no longer in a Saints uniform, and two years after that Williams wasn’t in any uniform at all. The blockbuster trade and, seemingly, Williams’ professional career had flopped. And yet the problem wasn’t that the Saints’ original scouting report was incorrect but that it was all too accurate. As it turned out, Williams really was determined, elusive and tough to tackle. He really was someone special, an athlete who did the unusual routinely. Trouble was, Williams met that description off the field as much as on it. Before too long it became clear that Williams was less interested in taking on uniformed opponents than in taking on himself.

Run, Ricky, Run is a documentary about this often inscrutable athlete who was first made famous by running within football and then made infamous by running away from it. The film is directed by Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni, and it includes intimate, exclusive footage of Williams dating back to 2004, shortly after his (initial) departure from the NFL, the announcement of which came without warning just a few weeks before Williams was set to open training camp with the Miami Dolphins. Pamphilon’s rare access to Williams was thanks both to a friendship that was formed when Williams was still in college and to a request by Williams to seek the truth. (“Ninety-nine percent of the truth is a lie,” Williams had told Pamphilon.) And so Pamphilon started shooting, without any way of predicting all of what was to come. Like documentaries ranging from Woodstock (1970) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Run, Ricky, Run is defined in part by our awareness that the story had yet to be fully defined when shooting began. It’s organic. The historian’s retroactive approach is sometimes the only option available to a documentary filmmaker, but it’s inherently problematic – memories are flawed, and at some point legend tends to suffocate truth. Run, Ricky, Run is the all-too-rare documentary that unfolds mostly in the present tense, which is the only reasonable way to try to climb into the mind of a man who often seemed overcome by the moment.

The documentary has an effect similar to Michael Apted’s unparalleled Up series, albeit on a considerably smaller scale: Run, Ricky, Run charts Williams’ evolution through multiple present-tense examinations spaced out over time – a simple documentary formula in principle that is nonetheless exotic because of the breadth of footage that must be acquired to pull it off. Pamphilon didn’t start examining Williams’ life on camera until after Williams had fathered a third child by a third mother, until after he had admitted to suffering from social anxiety disorder, until after he failed a test for marijuana and fled the NFL to sleep in a tent during a soul-searching trek in Australia and until after sports media personalities lined up to psychoanalyze Williams in speculative 90-second rants. But the breadth of content is here just the same, thanks to interviews with Williams and those close to him that Pamphilon conducted from 2004-2009, during which time Williams spurned the NFL, returned to the NFL, violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy (again), enlisted in the Canadian Football League, schooled himself in holistic medicine, dedicated himself to yoga while accepting a spiritual leader, tested positive for marijuana (again) and revived his NFL career (again). It’s a narrative with more twists than a ratings-starved reality show, albeit without the bitter taste of shameful exploitation.

Throughout the film, Williams makes for a remarkably fascinating subject. He has an indescribable ability to be both forthright and elusive. He’s a deep thinker who sometimes seems to be without thought. He’s a man who comes off as alternately inspired and insane. Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard sums it up best when he reacts to Williams’ initial flight from football by saying, “I still don’t know as I sit here talking to you whether this is a product of him being bipolar or mentally ill, or it’s a product of him being the only sane person out there and the rest of us worshipping all the wrong things.” To watch Run, Ricky, Run is to get the sense that all the above might be true. Indeed, Williams might be suffering from one or a few medical disorders that by now might have woven together to the point of being indistinguishable from one another. Bipolar? Depression? Social anxiety? Addiction? Maybe. But you don’t need to make Williams into a sympathetic victim in order to recognize the viciousness of the societal monster around him. Through a montage of sports-media talking-heads performing various levels of character assassination on Williams, Pamphilon makes it crystal clear that the audience at the arena that Williams was so vilified for leaving didn’t give two shits about him. The money and fame that are so often considered the outlandish spoils of professional sports turn out also to be shackles meant to keep athletes in their place until we’re done watching them suffer for our own enjoyment. In this light, the moral outrage over Williams’ marijuana use was a sham. Underneath it all people weren’t outraged that Williams might prefer pot to professional football. People were outraged that anyone might prefer anything to wealth and stardom.

If you doubt that last analysis, pay attention to the segment of Williams’ 60 Minutes interview from 2004 that appears in this film. Sitting opposite Mike Wallace, Williams asks a very simple question: “When would it have been okay for me to stop playing football? When my knees went out? When my shoulders went out? When I had too many concussions? … I don’t understand. When is it okay to not play football anymore?” If the answer to that last question is anything other than, “It’s always okay to not play football anymore,” doesn’t that say something troubling about our society? And yet, if the answer is that simple, how do we explain the outrage heaped upon Ricky Williams – an outrage that might have remained to this day had he not “turned his life around,” as we like to say, by, in part, returning to the very place we always demanded that he exist: the football field? Run, Ricky, Run isn’t so didactic as to ask these questions, but it is dynamic enough to inspire them. It’s the most surprisingly thought-provoking entry in ESPN Film’s “30 for 30” series thus far.

Run, Ricky, Run premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.


Ed Howard said...

I haven't seen this, but great piece as always. I don't comment often because I know nothing about any of these sports movies, but I've been loving the series anyway. This one sounds especially fascinating since it seems to suggest some level of questioning of sports and its role in society.

My one thought here is: I get why sports organizations test for performance-enhancing drugs, of course, but marijuana? It's not like smoking pot is going to make the guy run any better, so leave him alone... People get outraged by odd things.

Tony Dayoub said...

Gotta check this one out, it looks like. Williams has intrigued me ever since I looked into why he would wear his helmet and sun-visor at press conferences.

Clarence Ewing said...

I haven't seen it yet, but I've got it TiVoed and will check it out soon. After this review, I'm looking forward to it.

Marijuana has always held a weird place in the US. In sports, you can be a cocaine freak, a drunk, a steroid abuser or a prescription pill popper and people will forgive it or ignore it. But pot seems to be the drug of weakness, of laziness. It's what NBA ghetto trash and hippies use, and unlike other substances it WILL keep you from getting a job at ESPN.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'll be interested to hear what people think if/when they see this.

Ed, yes, this documentary does make one pause and ask questions about our country's sports obsession. It's only a 50-minute film, so it doesn't go into these topics in depth, but this would be the ideal film to watch in a film club type setting where you can grab hold of the many threads out there and discuss them in more detail than the film is able to do.

One observation that didn't make my review (because I forgot to put it in there) ...

There's clearly some stereotyping going on here, too. Williams is a muscular black man who at one time sported dreadlocks. Add his pot smoking in there and, yes, those labels scream either "athlete" or "slacker" or both. What they don't suggest as strongly would be things like "deep thinker" or "soul searcher."

Now, I don't think all of the criticism of Williams was unfair. I don't think he's an especially profound guy overall. But it struck me that in some ways the Williams story reminded me a bit of Chris McCandless and Into the Wild. That kid turns his back on ideals of wealth and runs off to find himself, and he's idolized (at least to some degree) for it. Williams does the same thing and he's considered selfish or slacking. Again, they aren't identical situations, but they're close enough to spot evidence of a double-standard. (Then again, to be fair, there are many who have criticized McCandless' actions all along, too.)

Kevin J. Olson said...

Wow. Great piece here, Jason. I watched this late last night and was a little sleepy, but about five minutes into it I noticed I was wide awake and loving every minute of this doc. I agree with your assessment that this may be the best 30 for 30 yet, and one only has to point to last week's debacle with the Fantasy Baseball doc to see why this more static, stripped-down approach works best for these subjects.

I could have watched this for another hour...oh, not about Ricky per se, but about the media and how they viewed him. My only minor complaint was that they didn't really get into the hypocrisy of the American media who were so quick to pile on Ricky in 2002 - 2004 and then praise the man last year for his leadership when Ronnie Brown went down with a season ending injury. I think that would have made for a fascinating little bookend to this story.

However, I guess it seems appropriately "Ricky" that the doc doesn't go there, because the man truly sounds like he's at peace for now and doesn't care what those outside voices think of him.

The footage shot in that California house was something else, man. I think it's safe to say that we would have never really seen an athlete/celebrity that emotionally naked -- stripped of all pomp and circumstance -- living their day-to-day life with an unfiltered camera on them.

I find it interesting too that a lot of people don't think of Ricky Williams as this huge star...even though he's the greatest RB ever to play college football. I think people think of Ricky as someone who abandoned the game that "gave" him so much (what it gave him is debatable considering he wanted to earn it with the Saints by not signing a big contract, and the Dolphins asked him to pay back their contract bonus), and unfairly peg him as a spoiled kid who never fully realized his potential.

To be fair to his critics though I think that people would have said the same thing about Robert Smith, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders had they left to go smoke pot and find themselves. Such an elusive and metaphysical exercise doesn't always compute with football fans.

I'm rambling now...I just wanted to say that this was a great piece here, Jason, and that this was definitely my favorite of the 30 for 30 series so far.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Kevin. I'm not sure I'd rank this as the best "30 for 30," but, as I said, it's certainly most surprising. I went in with low expectations. Of all the subjects so far, Williams didn't really seem to qualify for "30 for 30" treatment. But I had a similar response to you in that I was immediately sucked in. It goes by in a blur. It could have easily gone on an hour longer, it seems.

I think you're exactly right that other football players would have gotten the same treatment by the media -- and others here are right on about the interesting reactions that marijuana creates. With other drugs, their users are seen as unfortunate victims to some degree (baseball player Josh Hamilton, for example). But since there's this illusion that marijuana isn't addictive (not what some rehab specialists would say, by the way), the slacker stereotype endures.

As for the part about Williams being at peace ... I agree, and yet I'm curious: Did you come away with the feeling that his sense of peace could be gone tomorrow? I did. Having watched for the film, I root for him. I hope he keeps going upward toward inner peace. But if you told me that five years from now he'd look a lot like the Ricky Williams of five years ago, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest.