Ricky Williams is under the control of a cult.
Such was the rumor when the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL league-leading rusher accepted a $50,000 donation in 2012 for his Ricky Williams Foundation from Gary Douglas, creator and leader of a mysterious spiritual group called Access Consciousness. How does it feel to be accused of being a cult member?
"It doesn't elicit any feelings," Williams says.
His voice on the phone is calm, light, and buoyant. Speaking with Williams feels less like a conversation and more like a therapy session. He listens intently and gives straightforward responses that often come off as blunt, but never rude. When I speak, he doesn’t interrupt. When he feels I’m finished, he allows a brief pause that serves the dual purpose of assuring my completion and allowing him a chance to formulate a response. It feels as if he’s listening not just in anticipation of his turn to speak, but to fully comprehend what is being said.
“People that are on the fringe, that are doing things that are different, they [have] detractors. They say, ‘This is the right way and the way that you’re doing things is the wrong way.’ To me that’s judgment. So for me the people that don’t like Access, it’s not for them, so don't do it. The people that do, it’s good stuff. So I think for each his own. We’re all at different places in the journey and we all require different kinds of medicine. Be true to yourself, listen to your heart, and you’ll be fine. Whether you do Access or not.”
Now, this is where I should specifically tell you what Access Consciousness is and what they do. The only problem is I’m not totally sure because they never totally reveal themselves—at least not for free. Visiting Access’ site provides about as much initial clarity as a Young Thug speed reading session. At its base, Access markets itself as a set of tools capable of teaching you how to be free of judgment and any other mental roadblocks that might hinder you achieving your greatest potential, or as their website says, “Access provides you with ways to become totally aware and to begin to function as the conscious being you truly are.” Sounds less like a mission statement and more like the functioning definition of Adderall.
Further reading alludes to different “courses” and “tools” that Access supplies its (paying) members in order to reach that hallowed state of mental nirvana. One such tool is a procedure known as “Running the Bars” where trained Access members (called “Facilitators”) touch 32 specific points on your head to release “all the limiting thoughts, ideas, attitudes, decisions, and beliefs that you have ever had, about anything.” Afterwards, Access uses “questions and verbal techniques” and up to seven different levels of courses to help you reach peak awareness. The specifics of what each class offers and at what price are on their FAQ, but overall public access to Access is opaque and vague. There simply isn’t much that the public knows.
But we do know some things.
We know Gary Douglas, 74, was once a member of the Church of Scientology before taking issue with the organization, breaking away, and founding Access in 1990. We know he’s an enigmatic and “spellbinding” leader with over 5,000 followers (or “accessories” as Access calls them) in over 38 countries. We know he claims to be able to personally channel and communicate with aliens and the spirit of Grigori Rasputin. We know Mr. Douglas and his Access co-founder Dr. Dain Heer say they have the ability to communicate with animals, heal people with their hands, read minds, and physically alter the state of matter. We know Mr. Douglas encourages his Access followers to have open marriages and a ton of sex. We know that he has described young children as “incredibly sexy.”
We also know that Mr. Douglas expressed intentions of expanding his teachings to schools not long before his donation to the Ricky Williams Foundation, an organization founded “to be instrumental in the physical, mental, emotional and educational development of at-risk individuals from low social-economic communities.” We know the partnership between Access, Williams, and his foundation raised red flags.
Within weeks of the donation, publications accused Douglas of turning the RWF into “a training ground for [Access Consciousness].” In accepting Douglas’ money, Williams had “transformed his foundation into an outlet for delivering the controversial teachings of Access Consciousness to the underprivileged children who attended his campus.” This was a serious, dubious threat.
Until it wasn’t. Four years removed from the donorship that launched a thousand what-the-hell’s and prompted one writer to go so far as mention Williams and Jerry Sandusky in the same breath, there is nothing scandalous to talk about. Williams—and his foundation—aren’t just still kicking, they’re flourishing. His foundation continues to forge partnerships and serve the community while Williams himself continues his work as an Access Facilitator while embarking on budding entrepreneur.
“I had the visceral experience of how devastating judgment can be,” Williams says. “And because I was able to free myself from those judgments I also could feel the lightness and the joy that comes with not being so bogged down with judgments of yourself.”
Williams remains today as fascinating as ever. Yes, he’s still eccentric, but he’s also apparently free of the CTE trauma that often plagues former NFL players, happier than he’s ever been, living with no regrets, and looking forward to what’s next. Ricky Williams isn't deaf to the criticism. He just doesn't care.
The calculus of Ricky Williams, born Errick Lynne Williams Jr., can be distilled down to two specific awakenings. The first came during his sixth grade graduation. Standing in line to receive his elementary school diploma, Williams remembers looking to his left and right and feeling no sense of distinction:
“There was nothing unique or special about me,” Williams says to me over the phone. “I didn’t like how that felt. I became driven to be really good at whatever I did. And when you look at people who are exceptionally good at what they do, you have to be unique. You have to be different.”
By the time he left the University of Texas in 1998, Williams was all of these things. Sporting his idiosyncratic untamed dreadlocks, Williams became a two-time All-American and Heisman trophy winner who held or shared 20 different NCAA records. During that stint he also played minor league baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies and was drafted in 1998 by the Montreal Expos, ultimately choosing to forgo a baseball career in lieu of the NFL, a move he says he regrets.
“When I went from college to the NFL, it was just the next logical step,” he says. “It wasn’t thought out. There was no curiosity involved.”
If there is anything nowadays capable of unnerving Williams’ otherwise Zen demeanor, it’s a lack of curiosity. In Williams’ world, the importance of asking questions supersedes that of getting answers. Understanding this is critical to recognizing why his time spent within the rigid, preordained constructs of the National Football League was so tumultuous.
“What do they say,” he asks me. “‘It’s always darkest before dawn?’ I think what that term means is that usually before you have an awakening there’s a disillusion with what was at once held to be valuable or vital. And I think when that starts to die away, it creates a space where you start to ask questions like ‘what’s next?’”
The common belief in NFL locker rooms is that the time spent in the NFL is hands-down the best time of a player’s life. Nothing will ever be as good to you as the League. Williams didn’t buy it. “I started asking, ‘Does it have to be like that?’ What other things can I do with my life that would be even better than my football experience?’”
It was asking these questions that inadvertently brought about the behavior that made Williams infamous. Annoyed with the celebrity and judgment of the NFL (while experiencing what would later be diagnosed as social anxiety disorder), Williams began to act out. He conducted interviews with his helmet on and behind a tinted visor to avoid contact with the media. During the offseason he disappeared for months to rural Australia where no one knew his name. He became increasingly interested in “pseudosciences” like Ayurvedic medicine and osteopathy and increasingly disinterested in the absolute science of an NFL drug test. He’d famously fail two of those during his two seasons with the Dolphins. By 2004, after five years in the NFL and at the age of 24, Williams retired from football.
It was during this first retirement that Williams became “mildly obsessed” with the life of Jesus Christ, religion, and spirituality. It was also when he learned of Access Consciousness.
“The whole thing about Access is ask questions and be open to all information and ignore judgment,” Williams says. “So in a way, I was already doing Access before I even knew what it was…[with Access] I thought about my experience in the NFL and receiving so much judgment from my friends, from my family, and from the public. I was able to free myself from those judgments.”
These are perhaps the defining characteristics of Ricky Williams—the ability to remain wholly unbothered by how others view him and the ability to live his life free of the burdens of dogma.
Williams knows people think he’s crazy. He agrees, actually: “I am crazy!” he says with a laugh. “When you’re doing something different and you live on the edge people are always going to have some kind of reaction to it,” he says. “But you just stay the course and the reactions will subside.”
“People try to fit Access into a box,” says Dr. Dain Heer, Access Consciousness' co-creator, when asked about Access' biggest misconceptions.
Heer is charming and enthusiastic and looks more like The Bachelor than a spiritual leader. If Douglas is the name behind Access, Dr. Heer is the face. Fifteen years ago, reeling from physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, Heer was on the verge of suicide before meeting Gary Douglas.
“Whether that’s spirituality or spiritual healing or metaphysics or cult, they try to put it into whatever box they can so that they can dismiss it,” he says. “The cult part is a way of dismissal.”
For cult specialist, deprogrammer, and author Rick Alan Ross, the cult label is not about dismissal at all, but validation. Ross founded The Cult Education Institute, an organization devoted to public education and research on destructive cults. He also wrote the book Cults Inside Out, where he cites three criterion that have been generally agreed upon by various medical sources as the guiding principles of a destructive cult. Criterion, Ross believes, that Access falls squarely under:
1. The living leader of the group becomes an object of worship. The leader is authoritarian. In large part with members who defer to the leader to make value judgments.
2. There is a thought reform program that is evident within group’s training, or indoctrination process.
3. If we’re to consider this group destructive, we look to see if the group exploits or does harm to the members.
For Ross, Douglas’ channeling and healing claims is a ploy used to create “an aura of almost sacredness.” He likens the practice of “running the bars” to Scientology’s “auditing” and “clearing” procedures. “And listen,” Ross says. “a big red flag is when a group’s website says, ‘We’re not a cult.’”
Dr. Heer can site his own studies. He mentions a 1951 book by American writer Erick Hoffer, The True Believer, a study on the psychology of fanaticism. “Hoffer talks about the aspects of the cult. He mentions how they ask ‘give us your awareness,’ and ‘give us your knowing,’” Heer says. “From that point of view, Access is kind of like an anti-cult.”
A good portion of the Internet discourse surrounding Access thinks that’s simply not true. There are over a dozen blogs and forums that have lent considerable bandwidth to deconstructing the validity of Access Consciousness. Through first-hand accounts of former Access members and the acquaintances of former members, there are numerous allegations of broken familial ties, lost marriages, and bank accounts being destroyed by Access. As one poster on the Access Schism online forum commented after divorcing his wife (and learning of her $10,000 Access bill): “I’m crediting them with destroying our marriage.”
Last July there was an Access course, “The 9 Trannies,” being taught in Denmark by Gary Douglas and Dr. Heer aimed at helping unlock “what is required for you to be and have everything you've been asking for.”
For $1800, accessories could learn the secrets of accessing some of the transformative powers usually reserved for members of Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. Talents like the ability to physically shift your appearance (transmogrification), the ability to morph something from what it appears to be into something different (transfiguration), the ability to move from one location to another without car, plane, train, or bus (transmigration), and six other mutating hacks.
When I present peculiarities similar to this “Level 2 & 3” Access course or Douglas’ channeling claims, Williams and Heer remain typically unfazed. “You really got to be in your own knowing,” Heer says. “We’re trying to show people that there’s something different that they can choose to be. It is what it is.”
Williams alludes to having his own “inner experiences” while meditating, so channeling isn’t that crazy a phenomena to him.
“What gets people in trouble is because they think it’s bizarre, they don't think it’s useful to explore,” Williams says. “People are willing to blame and acknowledge what they don’t know, but they’re not willing to receive what they don’t know.”
I ask Williams what we don’t know about him and about the biggest misconceptions people have had about him over the years. He pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath, and slowly unfurls: “I think they misunderstand themselves.”
“Most people spend most of their lives trying to define who they are, so they can go to that definition if possible. I’m the opposite,” he says. “I want people to understand more about themselves so they can be more interesting.”
He laughs mid-sentence, realizing even after basically calling tens of thousands of people rigid and boring, he’s only half done.
“Then,” Williams says, ”you’ll finally be interesting enough to get to know me.”