It’s a clip that’s been played a thousand-some times at this point: Antonio Brown lines up to the left of the field, 20-yard line, 17 outlined in Patriots crimson. He makes a hard first step, trying to dart past Dolphins rookie Jamal Perry. Can’t beat him. Doesn’t matter. Tom Brady lobs the football in Brown’s direction; 17 turns sideways, toward a roaring crowd, hands in a W, catch, touchdown.
That’s about all the action we’d get. A week later, the Patriots cut Brown from the team, after allegations emerged that he sent threatening messages to a woman who alleged sexual misconduct the week prior. Since then, even after Brown disappeared for nearly a year, the highlight—the only touchdown connection between Brady and Brown, still—has been replayed to oblivion. Especially this past week. Following an eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the league's personal-conduct policy, Brown was back with Brady last night, suiting up as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer on Sunday Night Football. By the way the talking heads riffed on the footage from a year ago, you’d think Brown’s third act was unfairly snatched from him; the play a shining example of what could’ve been, what never was, but now, what might be this long-doomed NFL season.
It’s a sobering reminder of what we already knew: The NFL isn’t just a bottom-line league. It’s a wait until people have moved on league.
Brown's history of misconduct is at the point where you need a whole damn timeline to sort it all out. He entered the league in 2010, quickly racking up Hall-of-Fame-level numbers with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2017, he started to test the Steelers' notoriously low penchant for bullshit, and was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 2019 after he was found guilty of reckless driving. He caused trouble there too: Missed practices, fights with the GM, a bizarre cryotherapy mishap. The Raiders released him in early September of 2019; the New England Patriots signed him a few days later. At that point, AB was just known as a troublemaker—the stuff of First Take takes and podcast fodder, nothing that was cause for an exit from the league.
Until September 10, 2019, when Brown's former trainer, Britney Taylor, alleged he sexually assaulted her three separate times. (Brown's lawyer, Darren Heitner, has denied these allegations.) The Patriots released Brown after a second woman alleged he sexually assaulted her. She also told Sports Illustrated at the time that he sent "intimidating texts" to her after she made her allegations. The NFL opened up an investigation into the alleged crimes, with Britney Taylor sitting for a 10-hour-long meeting with the NFL at the time. Over a year later? That investigation is still active. The eight-game suspension he faced at the beginning of this season, before joining Brady yet again with the Buccaneers, was entirely unrelated to the sexual assault investigation. (Brown pled no contest to allegedly assaulting a moving truck driver.)
But if you were a sports fan that, let’s say, was so starved for entertainment that you started watching sports for the first time after lockdown? You probably wouldn’t have known any of that. On Monday Night Football last week, you had the broadcast crew saying-but-not-saying it. There were lines like, “Look, it’s a bottom-line league.” Friday night’s SportsCenter led off with Brown’s return, providing more updates about where he might line up on the field, than anything about the NFL’s investigation. And now, on Sunday night, Al Michaels calling AB the "NFL's wayward son," before cutting to Michele Tafoya for the 30-second Sparknotes on Brown's legal history. All of it? Refusing to hold even a smidge of accountability for the NFL, business partner of the lot, to do even so much as wrap up a sexual assault investigation in under a year.
Maybe sports reporters are just starting to, you know, just give up calling bullshit on the NFL, and often, its players/enablers. Because poking and prodding these guys for their thoughts on it all doesn’t do anything. Ask Tom Brady if welcoming Brown back into the NFL so whole-heartedly—seriously, these guys are living together—is just a football decision? Get ready for a rambling, two-minute-long monologue that says nothing of Britney Taylor and everything about “maximizing potential.” Forget about asking anything of Brown, who, you know, is just “super grateful for this opportunity.” Maybe Buccaneers wide receiver Scotty Miller summed it up best: Forgive, forget, play football.
"I think just really giving him a blank canvas," Miller told ESPN. "He's been suspended. He's done all the things the league's had him do. So just come in and treat him like anybody else who comes in. Give him a chance, just like anybody. Get to know him. I don't know too much about his past—I didn't research him or anything like that. ... But just excited to meet him. I think we all are. One thing I have heard about him is he's one of the hardest working guys around. So I think we're just excited to have him. And I think he's gonna do a good job."
You might want to know at this point: How have the NFL's other personal misconduct investigations turned out? Well, Kareem Hunt lines up in the backfield every Sunday, years after we saw alleged footage of him kicking a woman on the ground. Same hall-pass for Hunt’s former teammate, Tyreek Hill, still catching TDs after audio emerged of him talking about his preference for using a belt to punish children. That’s not even mentioning all the other things you have to give yourself the Men in Black memory wipe treatment to a game of football anymore: Concussions, COVID, and the never-Kaepernickers booing a moment of silence for racial equality. All of it? Look over there, push it under the rug, why don't you just… forget about it already, so we can enjoy the game of the week.
It’s all fucked. It's been fucked for a while. Whether or not players and journalists get on the soap box, it'll continue to be fucked, as long as Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the league. Sunday night's game, where we saw Cris Collinsworth eagerly pointing out the wayward son himself every time he lined up on the field, only proved that football has moved on. Just like Brown always wanted them to. Unless he nukes Tampa Bay’s locker room (not out of the realm of possibility!), or the NFL magically wraps the investigation up midseason, you’ll be hearing about Brown, Brady, the Buccaneers, and the story of their Super Bowl chase for the next few months. Look at the cries about an Antonio Brown curse this morning if you want to know what that will look like. Just remember that the only story that matters is the one Britney Taylor is trying to tell.
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