The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Antonio Brown put his pain on display for all to see. Instead of helping, the Bucs cut bait.

Antonio Brown left the field during Sunday’s Buccaneers-Jets game. (Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media/AP)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to own Antonio Brown’s talent but not his problems. There is something disquieting about that. You may or may not find Brown relatable, but any sentient person has to flinch at the swiftness with which he was discarded after having an apparent emotional outburst at work. It’s an ugly institutional look: The Bucs used Brown’s body, only to fire him for his troubled mind, and now their biggest concern is how to “designate” him so he can’t go somewhere else and hurt them in the playoffs.

It doesn’t matter what triggered the outburst, whether dissatisfaction because of contract incentives or a demand by Coach Bruce Arians that he play on a sore ankle. The Bucs knew they were dealing with a volatile character and used him, calculatedly. They wanted to get what they could from him. And they had the right to walk away when they were discontented. He didn’t.

Brown’s situation exposes a glaring hole in the NFL’s otherwise laudable mental health initiatives: How can you cultivate human resources when the basic power construct of the league is inhumane and treats people as expendable, to be released with few guarantees? The Bucs knew Brown could be irrational, and they signed him anyway. He clearly lost his reason when he chucked off his shoulder pads and left the field midgame Sunday, refusing to fulfill his responsibility to the team. But what was their reasonable responsibility to him?

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)

If you’re an NFL employer, your responsibility to a player ends the second you decide it does.

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

For all of the NFL’s well-intentioned efforts on mental health, the Buccaneers have betrayed just how much of an archaic, body-commodifying, ranchers-and-cattle mentality can persist where decent human feeling should be. Was Brown not an asset and a “model citizen” for many months, as Arians said? Did he not help them win the Super Bowl last season? He caught 10 passes for his playoff-bound team just a week ago. Who on the Bucs didn’t know Brown had a tangled personality, demons stemming from indigence as a kid, that he had a pile of legal issues, trouble conforming and a penchant for self-sabotage?

It’s easy to be sympathetic to Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka or Michael Phelps for their mental health issues. Their struggles were largely invisible, their confessions soft-spoken. Not so much with Brown. In his case, he lives his crazy and his pain right out loud, in front of the cameras and social media, and it’s unnerving, unlikeable and in some instances perhaps inexcusable, from alleged sexual misconduct to refusing to pay debtors to faking a vaccine card. But the remarks of his teammates make it clear that they have deep affection for his best side and view much of his behavior as stemming from emotional unwellness.

“Everybody should hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs it,” Tom Brady said. “We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him at his best. Unfortunately, he can’t be with our team, but we have a lot of friendships that will last. Everyone should be compassionate and empathetic with some of the difficult things that are happening.”

From 2019: The NFL is complicit in Antonio Brown's self-sabotage

It’s hard to think of another field in which so valuable an employee is so summarily cut loose when deemed broken or noncompliant. Brown is 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds and plays a game that is the experiential equivalent of multiple car wrecks weekly. As Rob Gronkowski said when he was asked if he saw Brown’s meltdown: “I mean, I was out there smashing my head versus the 300-pound defenders, trying to catch passes, break tackles. So I had no time to see what happened on the sidelines.”

Brown works harder than any man in the league to be uncoverable, running through heavy sand in the dead of summer to improve his footwork. His body fat is 3 percent. You don’t work that way because you don’t want to play to win or because you want to be an unreliable teammate.

In no other profession do employers demand such devotion and repay it with so little loyalty and deem people so disposable. The league office and the NFL Players Association have, to their credit, recognized this imbalance and collaborated on a range of benefits to address players’ anxiety, depression, anger and other behavioral issues. League policy now mandates that every team have a clinician available at least part time.

For all of that, the standards vary from team to team, depending on sensibilities that are hard to change. And the Buccaneers’ sensibility in this case is terrible, perhaps in part because Arians has long been suspicious of sports psychology and only views it as a competitive tool.

“He’s no longer a Buc,” Arians said after Brown ran shirtless off the field. “End of story.”

But what Arians should have said was this: “He’s one of ours. We knew who he was when we signed him. We’re trying to help him, and we’ll keep trying to help him until the end of the season when his contract expires.” The Buccaneers should tell Brown he is welcome back. Not because they need him to win or want to enable him but because they should own all of him, the whole difficult man, and the entirety of his human problems.

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