Hours before week three of the NFL season got under way, the recently unemployed wide receiver Antonio Brown took to Twitter, unloading a series of self-destructive tweets that may finally dissuade teams from taking him on.
The demise of Brown’s career has been stunningly swift. Here’s a brief synopsis of his past two weeks: He’s been accused of rape and sexual misconduct by two women. He’s been released by two teams, the Raiders and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. He’s cost himself countless millions in salary and endorsements, with Nike dropping him and the Raiders voiding his $30 million contract. Whether the Patriots will ever pay him the $9 million he was guaranteed for this season is very much in doubt. Then, on Sunday, Brown all but retired, writing on Twitter that he wouldn’t play in the National Football League as long as owners could void contracts whenever they wanted.
The Patriots were forced to cut Brown after text messages surfaced late last week in which he appeared to threaten a woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct. Still, Brown has become a pariah not because of allegations that he harmed women, but because he embarrassed both the Raiders and the Patriots, defied authority, and indicated to teams through his actions that maybe football isn’t his top priority. Nobody is bigger than the shield, a common NFL mantra declares. To the league, protecting the sanctity of its logo always comes first.
During his Twitter tirade, Brown vented about being the victim of a double standard, pointing to the Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, as examples of league members whose standing in the league was never in jeopardy despite the fact that Roethlisberger was twice accused of rape and served only a four-game suspension, and Kraft is facing two misdemeanor counts of solicitation of prostitution after being caught in a prostitution sting at a spa in Jupiter, Florida. Kraft is still awaiting trial, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the league owners’ meetings in March that he wouldn’t make any determinations until all the facts had been gathered. About Roethlisberger, Brown tweeted, “4 games for Big Ben crazy world I'm done with it.” Of Kraft, he said: “Kraft got caught in the parlor AB speculations fired different strokes different folks clearly.” (He later deleted both comments.)
It’s certainly true that NFL players often don’t get the same benefit of the doubt in criminal cases that Kraft did. As was the case with Roethlisberger, the NFL has shown that it doesn’t need a conviction to punish a player. The Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games in 2017 after being accused of domestic violence, despite a lengthy legal battle over the credibility of those accusations.
What Brown didn’t acknowledge is that he himself is the latest example of the lengths the league will go to in order to excuse or overlook allegations of predatory behavior toward women. Even though, on September 10, his former athletic trainer, Britney Taylor, filed a civil suit accusing him of rape, Brown still played in the Patriots 43–0 blowout of the Miami Dolphins a few days later. (Last Monday, the NFL reportedly met with Taylor.)
Brown is wrong about a double standard in this sense: NFL teams and the league office definitely have a consistent way of addressing violence against women. Talented players get multiple opportunities to succeed professionally; the league gets involved only as much as it needs to protect its image.
Had Brown not self-destructed in so spectacular a fashion, he likely would still have a job and maybe even would have played in the Patriots’ 30–14 win over the New York Jets on Sunday. The fact that he had been accused of rape by one woman and sexual misconduct by another would not, on its own, have been enough to keep him off the field.
Last week, Sports Illustrated published a damning piece in which an unnamed female artist claimed that Brown, who had hired her to paint a mural at his home, approached her from behind with just a hand towel over his genitals. When she ignored him, the reporter Robert Klemko’s story alleged, Brown failed to pay her for her work. New England, according to Klemko, had told Brown not to have any contact with his accuser. When the artist received threatening texts after the Sports Illustrated story was published, that was it for the Patriots’ newest receiver.
In the time since New England signed Brown, the team has taken offense at perfectly fair questions about him. Coach Bill Belichick had the nerve to walk out on reporters after they asked why the Patriots felt the need to sign Brown in the first place.
When the furor over Brown’s Twitter rant inevitably dies down, some other NFL team might conceivably hold its nose and sign him to a contract. After all, he didn’t do anything truly repugnant—such as taking a knee to bring awareness to inequality and racial injustice. As it is, despite the serious nature of the allegations against him and questions about whether he’ll even be available to play this season, Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told ESPN on Saturday that he had talked with a few teams who were still interested in his client.
For Brown to paint himself as a victim is laughable. As one of the best receivers in football, he can have another chance if he convinces just one team that he won’t be a public-relations liability. If the NFL does decide to punish Brown for good, it won’t be because of the possibility that he hurt women. It will be because he hurt the shield.