The new documentary Run Ricky Run, which debuts Tuesday night as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, doesn't answer that question because Ricky Williams is far too complex a man for any simple answers. But filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who was granted tremendous access to Williams to make his documentary, comes as close as anyone possibly could to getting inside the mind of Ricky Williams.
There are a lot of revelations in the documentary, but the most explosive is that when he was 6 years old, in 1983, Williams told his mother that his father was forcing him to take nude photographs of his dad with a Polaroid camera. Williams' father, Errick Williams Sr., was arrested and charged with sexually annoying a child.
"I'm not a saint, I haven't always been a saint. The past is the past and I like leaving the past behind me," Williams Sr. says. "A picture taken? I don't recall."
Williams Sr. does claim that he's been married to his second wife for 25 years, has four children with her, and has never molested his other children.
"If I was a deviant, if I was a sexual predator, if I was a molester, if I was a whatever you want to call it, I would have molested my -- those kind of people have repetitive behaviors," Williams Sr. says. "I would have done it again."
But Williams' mother says her ex-husband is a registered sex offender and that Ricky's life has been shaped by his anger toward his father.
"When he grew up he wanted to be a policeman so he could shoot his father and get away with it because a policeman can shoot you and not get in trouble," Williams' mother says.
Pamphilon convinced Williams to talk about the case on camera, and Williams seems more bewildered than angry about that childhood incident.
"You can't blame your life on your parents, your upbringing or anything that happened in the past," Williams says.
The saddest aspect of Run Ricky Run is the revelation that Williams, like so many survivors of child abuse, has been far from the ideal parent himself. The documentary doesn't go into all the details about how many children Williams has with how many women, but it's clear that he has caused a lot of pain to the people closest with him when we're introduced to a woman who is described as Williams' life partner, and she says, "I thought I had a boyfriend and he had a kid with somebody else."
But in 2010 there are signs that Williams is becoming more focused on ending the cycle and giving his children the supportive father he never had. And there are also signs that Williams genuinely enjoys playing football and recognizes that he's lucky to have been given a gift for doing it well.
What makes Ricky Williams do what he does? Run Ricky Run offers some clues, even as Williams himself seems uninterested by the question.
"It just seems so pointless to have this discussion," Williams says. "Who cares? I am who I am today."