The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Antonio Brown walked away on his own terms Sunday. That should embarrass the NFL.

Antonio Brown left in the middle of Sunday's game against the New York Jets. (Elsa/Getty Images)
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Antonio Brown chucked his shoulder pads, hurled his black undershirt into the stands and walked off the MetLife Stadium field shirtless, exhorting the crowd as he jogged across the end zone and into the tunnel, disappearing from view. As his team lined up for third and seven, Brown torched what remained of his career. The spectacle rested upon a fundamental fact that should embarrass so many in the NFL: Brown orchestrated an exit of his own volition.

Coach Bruce Arians announced afterward that Brown no longer plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which Brown had already declared with his behavior. That Brown, 33, could choose the time and manner of his departure, no matter how bizarre, should shame the Buccaneers and many others across the NFL. All the times Brown should have received serious help or significant punishment over the past three years, he received more chances to play football.

Brown 'no longer a Buc' after midgame exit

Each time one team grew tired of his antics, another clamored to sign him. When two women accused Brown of sexual assault and the NFL suspended him for half a season for a separate battery charge involving a moving company employee, Tom Brady leaped to rehabilitate him. When he used a fake vaccination card this year, the NFL slapped his wrist with a three-game suspension and Arians allowed competitive desperation to trump his zero-tolerance vow about Brown.

“He is no longer a Buc,” Arians said after the Buccaneers’ dramatic 28-24 victory over the New York Jets, in which Brady orchestrated a last-minute touchdown drive without Brown. “That’s the end of the story.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown was released from the team after removing his pads and jersey during the Jan. 2 game at MetLife Stadium, N.J. (Video: The Washington Post)

Of course, that’s barely the start of the story and leaves many questions unanswered. What set Brown off on the sideline, when wide receiver Mike Evans’s attempts to calm him down failed? Why did the Buccaneers acquire Brown in the first place and allow him to return this season? Did Arians regret signing or retaining Brown? What responsibility does Brady own in trying to redeem Brown?

And a question for the NFL at large: Why will this incident probably bring the end of Brown’s playing career when so many more serious off-field misdeeds went lightly punished?

“I’m not talking about him,” Arians said. “He’s no longer a part of the Bucs.”

For Arians, that sidestepping is convenient. The Buccaneers got what they asked for by relying on Brown. It’s easy to say Arians should have seen it coming. The truth is, Arians did see it coming.

The Buccaneers signed Brown last summer at the urging of Brady after a spate of troubling behavior. The NFL had suspended Brown for eight games after he pleaded no contest to burglary and battery charges and received two years of probation as the result of an incident with an employee of a moving company. The NFL never suspended Brown in relation to accusations of sexual misconduct made by a former trainer and an artist he hired to work in his house, because those accusations did not lead to charges.

“He screws up one time, he’s gone,” Arians told NBC’s Peter King at the time. This year, Brown screwed up. The Tampa Bay Times reported accusations that Brown had forged his vaccination card, made by a personal chef who said Brown had not paid $10,000 he allegedly owed him. The NFL investigated and corroborated the accusation. The league suspended him for three games. But Brown was not gone.

“Well, the history has changed since that statement was made,” Arians said in a news conference last week. “You know, a lot of things went on last year that … I was very proud of him. I made a decision that this was best for our football team.”

“I could give a [expletive] what they think,” Arians added when asked about critics of Brown’s return. “The only thing I care about is this football team and what’s best for us.”

Arians and the Buccaneers welcomed back Brown because they believed they needed him to defend their Super Bowl title. The night before Arians spoke, they had been shut out by the New Orleans Saints. They had lost wide receiver Chris Godwin for the season to a torn knee ligament. Brown had a deep connection with Brady, and he was their best available wide receiver. They overlooked the damage Brown could do because of his talent.

That was nothing new. At the end of his Pittsburgh Steelers tenure in 2018, Brown threatened to punch a reporter who wrote about him. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin benched Brown for a crucial Week 17 game after Brown, angered because teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster won the team MVP award, skipped Saturday preparation. The move precipitated an offseason trade to the Oakland Raiders. Brown imploded during training camp with the Raiders after he refused to comply with new NFL helmet specifications, skipping practices and pitching fits until the Raiders released him before he played one regular season game.

The actions painted a portrait of a man who needed help and a break from football, not a warm embrace and a playbook. The New England Patriots wasted no time in signing him. He played one game for them before the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, along with a raft of accusations of him not paying large debts. Reportedly against the wishes of Brady, who had invited Brown to live with him, Patriots owner Robert Kraft released him.

Brady became a champion for Brown, pushing for his signing in Tampa Bay. On Sunday, he had to win a game after Brown quit on him.

“That’s honestly a difficult situation,” Brady said Sunday in a news conference. “I think we all want him to just — I think everybody should find, hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs it. We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him be at his best, and unfortunately it won’t be with our team.

“But we have a lot of friendships that will last. … The most important thing about football is the relationships with your friends and your teammates. And they go beyond the field. And I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things that are happening.”

Brady provided the right words after two years of the wrong actions. He was the person most responsible for Brown’s continued NFL employment. He showed little compassion and empathy toward the women who accused Brown, or the employees whom Brown stiffed, or the people whom he threatened violence against. If Brady wanted Brown to get the mental health help he needed, playing in the NFL didn’t need to be part of it.

But Brown could help Brady win football games, and that took priority. In the NFL’s universe of mores, no sin is greater than quitting midgame. Brown’s latest strange misstep probably will cost him his career. If he can receive the help he needs away from football, it will be the best thing for him. It should have happened long before Sunday.