The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Antonio Brown’s deal with the Patriots dissolved in a matter of days

The New England Patriots released wide receiver Antonio Brown on Sept. 20 amid the NFL’s investigation into accusations of rape and sexual assault against him. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The Oakland Raiders’ Antonio Brown-related pain would become the New England Patriots’ gain, it seemed at first.

It took the Patriots, six-time Super Bowl champions, only hours to agree to a contract with Brown after he was released by the Raiders following the craziness over his frostbitten feet, helmet grievances against the NFL, practice-field clash with General Manager Mike Mayock and social-media antics. Surely Brown would become a solid locker-room citizen in Coach Bill Belichick’s no-nonsense environment, restore his football reputation and assist quarterback Tom Brady to make the Patriots next to unbeatable, right?

But the relationship between Brown and the Patriots unraveled quickly when Brown’s off-field behavior took a more disturbing turn with allegations by two women of rape, sexual assault and intimidation. With the NFL investigating and considering whether to place Brown on paid administrative leave, the Patriots decided Friday to release the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, 11 days and one game after signing him Sept. 9.

That decision came amid two sets of deliberations that made it appear inevitable Brown would be taken off the field soon, either by the NFL or the Patriots, in the view of some of those close to the case.

Those people described a league investigation that was progressing, with consideration of the allegations by both women, toward the potential placement of Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list. The Patriots, meanwhile, dealt with the controversy and media questioning about the accusations and tried to figure out the right thing to do, in general terms, and what was best for the team.

The outcome is that the Patriots move on without Brown while he faces an uncertain NFL future, with the league signaling to any interested teams that he could be placed on paid leave via the exempt list if signed.

Brewer: The NFL is complicit in Antonio Brown’s self-sabotage

“We were appreciative the NFL took this seriously and acted on it immediately,” Lisa Banks, an attorney for one of the women accusing Brown, said by phone Friday evening. “We have every confidence that the league officials who spoke with Mr. Brown and/or his people made it clear to him he can’t continue this kind of behavior.”

The process that brought about the end of Brown’s short tenure with the Patriots began on the evening of Sept. 10, the day after the team announced the one-year contract to which Brown had agreed Sept. 7. The deliberations by the league and team were described by several people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending litigation and the ongoing NFL investigation.

That day, around 9 p.m., NFL representatives were in contact with an attorney for Britney Taylor, a former college classmate who later worked for Brown as a trainer. Taylor had just filed a lawsuit against Brown in Florida accusing him of rape and sexual assault. Taylor was willing to speak to the league’s investigators but could not do so until six days later.

Brown has not been charged with a crime and denied the allegations through his attorney, Darren Heitner, who said that Brown considered the lawsuit “a money grab.” NFL officials realized quickly as they launched their investigation that they would have to consider whether to place Brown on the exempt list, according to a person with knowledge of the case.

Antonio Brown released by New England Patriots amid NFL investigation

The NFL’s personal conduct policy empowers Commissioner Roger Goodell to use paid leave if a player is charged with a serious crime, such as sexual assault, or if he believes after an investigation that the policy was violated. Brown was not charged with a crime, but league officials considered the allegations alarming, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. They also knew the accusations were not substantiated and they took the approach of trying to find out whether the allegations were credible, in their view, and could be corroborated by evidence and by potential witnesses.

The NFL knew the process would take what one person called “a little time,” but league officials hoped to be in position to make a relatively quick decision on the exempt list. The league was not ready to act before last weekend, however, and Brown made his Patriots debut Sunday in Miami, catching a touchdown pass from Brady.

NFL representatives met for 10 hours Monday with Taylor. Meanwhile, a second accuser emerged when Sports Illustrated published a report of a woman who had been hired by Brown to paint a mural in his home accusing him of inappropriate conduct when she ignored his unwanted sexual advance. According to the woman and her attorneys, the woman received a group text Wednesday that included a phone number she believed to be Brown’s. The texts contained photos of the woman and her children and were considered intimidating by the woman.

Around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, NFL officials received a letter from Banks and her client detailing Brown’s text messages to the woman. NFL officials responded immediately, Banks said, and arranged a phone conversation for Friday morning.

The NFL “clearly took this seriously,” Banks said. By the time she and her client spoke Friday morning with the NFL, league officials had already reached out to the Patriots and Brown’s representatives to instruct Brown to cease contact with the woman.

“Her goal all along, really, in getting us involved was to make sure the threats and the intimidation from Mr. Brown and his associates stopped,” Banks said. “Beyond that, it’s really up to the NFL and the Patriots to do what they’re going to do. Obviously the Patriots responded [Friday] with what they’re going to do.”

The second accuser’s account bolstered the case for the NFL to act immediately against Brown with the exempt list, given that the personal conduct policy specifically prohibits “stalking, harassment or similar forms of intimidation.”

Some with other NFL teams suspect the Patriots released Brown because they sensed the NFL was about to place him on paid leave. Multiple people close to the case contend otherwise, saying the Patriots acted on their own and were not told by the NFL that Brown being placed on the exempt list was imminent.

Those people describe a Patriots process in which owner Robert Kraft allowed Belichick, before the allegations in the lawsuit surfaced, to make a football decision about signing Brown based on his potential contributions and any drawbacks known at the time. But Kraft also is said to hold Belichick accountable for any roster decisions that ultimately become about more than football and could harm the franchise’s reputation.

The Patriots had internal discussions whether to release Brown when the allegations in the lawsuit surfaced. Alternatively, they could have deactivated him for the Miami game. But with no criminal case and the accusations not substantiated, they deferred to the league’s investigation and let him play that day.

The texts amounted to evidence that Brown could not control his off-field behavior even while on what amounted to a probationary period with the team. With the allegations mounting and the scale of football benefits vs. reputational costs tipping, the conversations within the organization continued. By the close of business Friday, a consensus was reached with what was described by those familiar with the process as little or no dissent.

Belichick cut short a news conference earlier Friday following a string of questions about Brown. Brown was on the practice field, seemingly readying for Sunday’s game at home against the New York Jets. But a little after 5 p.m., the league sent out its daily transactions to teams over its waiver wire, documenting that Brown had been released. With Brown now a free agent, the NFL’s investigation continues.

“It’s going to continue at the same pace,” said one person with knowledge of the case. The NFL, via a statement released Friday night, signaled to any interested teams that it “may become appropriate at any time” for Brown to be placed on the exempt list if he signs with a team.

“Both the league and the teams within are going to have to decide whether he plays again,” Banks said. “That’s not for me to say. My position here was to make sure that my client is protected and that his actions toward my client stopped.”

Read more NFL coverage:

NFL power rankings Week 3: Cowboys, Ravens move up as others suffer QB unrest

Brewer: If Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger can’t stay healthy, good luck to the NFL

The NFL’s great quarterback transition is happening, and the most flexible teams will thrive