The NFL is the richest, most powerful sports league in the world. But in recent years, it’s been plagued by star players doing bad things off the field.
To name just some of the most infamous cases: the brutal assault committed by Ray Rice on his fiancée (now wife) in an elevator back in 2014, the child-abuse conviction of former MVP Adrian Peterson that same year; and last year’s suspension of another running back, Kareem Hunt, after a video showed him shoving and kicking a woman.
This year’s dominant off-field story — the bizarre, destructive behaviour of star receiver Antonio Brown — didn’t seem as dark as those. Until last night. Now it’s more than just a football story.
Here’s the background you need to know and the details on the latest, most troubling developments:
Brown is one of the best football players in the world
Since he became a full-time starter in 2013, Brown leads the NFL in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He’s caught at least 101 passes six years in a row, and last year he scored a career-high 15 TDs in 15 games.
At 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Brown is shorter and lighter than most top receivers. But his combination of speed, quickness and technical precision makes him basically uncoverable for opposing defences. He’s also a famously hard worker who bootstrapped himself up from a sixth-round draft pick who had to make his bones as a kick returner.
He’s also one of the game’s more difficult personalities
All the accomplishments listed above came with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Brown had a good quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a strong supporting cast. But he clashed with his QB (not uncommon for Roethlisberger) and the coaching staff.
Back in 2017, Brown secretly posted one of Mike Tomlin’s locker-room talks to Facebook Live. At the end of the 2018 season, he left practice and went AWOL after arguing with Roethlisberger. The team told Brown not to bother showing up for the regular-season finale, despite needing a win to have a shot at the playoffs. Brown later demanded a trade.
Which brings us to Oakland
The Raiders acquired Brown in March after he reportedly avoided a trade to Buffalo by telling the Bills he wouldn’t play for them. He showed up to training camp in a hot-air balloon (with the Raiders’ blessing), then missed most of camp while dealing with frostbitten feet from a botched cryotherapy session and fighting with the NFL over a new helmet model he refused to wear.
When the Raiders tried to fine him for his absence, Brown lost it. He reportedly hurled profane insults at general manager Mike Mayock during a confrontation in front of the team, and the men had to be physically separated by other players.
After reports that the Raiders were looking to cut him and take back the $30 million US in guaranteed money they’d promised him in a new contract, Brown demanded (via Instagram) that the team release him. He also put out a very cinematic video that included a phone conversation with Oakland coach Jon Gruden telling him to “Please stop this s— and just play football.” Last weekend, Brown got his wish. The Raiders cut him.
Enter the Patriots
The joke during Brown’s shenanigans with the Raiders was that, ha ha, of course New England will grab him the second he’s cut. Sure enough, the Super Bowl champs took only slightly longer than that to sign him to a one-year deal with a team option for another. The best (and smartest) pro sports team of this century has never been afraid to take on questionable people as long as they can play football, and adding Brown made the Patriots’ already-strong offence seemingly unstoppable.
The move happened too late for Brown to play in last week’s season opener, but the Pats rolled up Pittsburgh anyway. Starting this Sunday, all-time-great quarterback Tom Brady would be throwing to Brown, Josh Gordon (another excellent receiver with a checkered past) and reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman. Everyone was picking the Patriots to win their seventh championship since 2001.
And then came Tuesday night’s bombshell
Brown’s former trainer filed a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexually assaulting her on three occasions. Brown denies the allegations. His lawyer says Brown and the woman had a “consensual personal relationship” and that he plans to counter-sue. Read more about the lawsuit against Brown here.
Brown’s future (immediate and long term) is uncertain
He practised Wednesday with the Patriots for the first time, but it’s hard to say whether he’ll be allowed to play Sunday afternoon in Miami. The NFL is launching an investigation, and league commissioner Roger Goodell has a ton of latitude when it comes to disciplining players for off-field issues — even in the absence of criminal charges, as in this case.
One of the tools he’s used before is the “commissioner’s exempt list” — a sort of middle ground between suspending a player and doing nothing. Anyone placed on this list still gets paid, but is not allowed to practise or play. Goodell went this route in the Hunt and Peterson cases to keep those players away from their teams while the league investigated and decided what to do. Eventually, both players were suspended. Note that Peterson’s case involved multiple criminal charges. Hunt, like Brown, was not charged with a crime or even arrested.
The Patriots don’t seem in a rush to do anything right now
They could hold Brown out of this week’s game if they wanted to. Or even cut him altogether and eat the $5-6 million in guaranteed money in his contract — some of which they might be able to recoup (as the Raiders showed, “guaranteed” doesn’t always mean guaranteed). But all the Patriots have done so far is release a boilerplate statement saying they don’t condone sexual violence or assault and that they “take these allegations very seriously.”
Coach Bill Belichick was typically tight-lipped at his press conference Wednesday. He wouldn’t say whether Brown was part of the game plan for Sunday. And we don’t know when Goodell will make a ruling. So it looks like Antonio Brown will remain the talk of the football world for awhile.
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