The NFL player who puts his self-interest first is always labeled a little crazy. Why is that? Whenever a man bucks the ideology of team fealty, he’s painted as an unpredictable danger and a threat to the entire city’s infrastructure. Antonio Brown was the most reliably great wide receiver in the league for six years, but suddenly, because he exercised some canny self-determination and busted himself out of a lousy situation, everyone wants to know if this selfish lunatic can sublimate his ungovernable personality. That, or they think he somehow played them.
It’s never the degenerate league owner, or the coach whose hoarse voice holds the rattling of a thousand bourbon-soaked ice cubes, who is supposed to show some loyalty and discretion. It’s only the player. In this case, Brown wrested his fate into his own hands, outwitted all of those who would have shackled him to bad organizations and outmaneuvered all of the NFL rules that are about hobbling player movement in the marketplace by treating players like third-graders in need of a hall pass, to land with the New England Patriots. Good for him.
Brown is 31, with only a couple of contracts left in him, and he was tired of dealing with a punch-drunk balloon-head of a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger on a downward-trending team in Pittsburgh. When the Steelers shipped him to a sinkhole in Oakland, he got a load of the chaotic sham-ism and dumpster igniting that Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock call leadership, and he decided he couldn’t choke it down even for $30 million.
So he turned himself into the very picture of a malcontent, broke every rule of training camp truancy and violated all of the respect-for-authority norms in a league that is literally terrified of loose-change individualists until he was free and could take his pick of teams. Again, good for him. May he win a Super Bowl ring with New England and get his $20 million extension.
It doesn’t matter whether Brown is a complicated man — “this attention-craving drama queen” in the words of ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky — or just a supremely calculating one. Either way, I root for him and hope he wins in the bigger context, which is to own himself and not let this disloyal profession turn him into another disposable piece of hamburger in a fast-food wrapper.
Perhaps not since Deion Sanders has a player judo-flipped the league so effectively to gain career leverage. It’s instructive to look back at Sanders’s NFL experience and the way he parlayed his baseball talent and instinct for marketing himself as “Prime Time” into a series of big paydays for good teams, managing to win two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Sanders always understood something crucial, if painful, about NFL celebrity: A hundred thousand people can scream for you, but they don’t even “know your middle name,” he observed once.
Sanders played the best season of his career in 1994 for the 49ers, was the defensive player of the year, made all-pro and helped them win the Super Bowl. And then they didn’t even make him a worthwhile offer. Which taught him, as he wrote last year in an interesting letter to his younger self for the Players’ Tribune, something crucial.
“You play this game because you love it. But these teams and these owners and these fans? They don’t love you. They say they do, but they don’t. They love what you do. And when you cease to do what you do, their love for you will cease, as well.”
The moral of that story is: Never love the institution, because it won’t love you back, not in the end.
“The game can provide for you,” Sanders points out. “It can sustain you financially. It can give a lifestyle that you’ve always dreamed of having. But it can’t possibly love you.”
Oddly enough, the Patriots under Coach Bill Belichick make no pretenses about love. It’s a highly transactional franchise. Whatever Belichick demands of his players, he doesn’t do it under the pretext that they owe him some measure of personal devotion. What they owe is dedication to craft, supreme professionalism. The demands are based simply on a recognition that winning is in everyone’s self-interest, and everyone will get paid. If affection develops, too, well, great.
If you think about it, you don’t hear much about the Patriots fining players. They don’t pick needless fights with their guys or challenge their pride just to establish the authority chain. If someone isn’t with the program and makes mistakes that waste their teammates’ efforts, they’re simply gone. You don’t hear Belichick saying something as silly as Mayock’s chesty demand to Brown, “It’s time for him to be all-in or all-out.”
That was a profound insult to a grown man whose entire career has been about league-leading performances, who has been a four-time all-pro and who never once has cheated when it came to on-field effort.
The prediction here is that Brown will be just fine with the Patriots. The idea that it’s a team made up of automatons is silly: Tom Brady and Julian Edelman maintain two of the more entertaining, and at times revealing, Instagram accounts in the league. The franchise, which is known for player evaluation, has had its share of nonconformists and must have every expectation that Brown can dial back his temperament and need for attention. Yeah, so he batted over a water cooler in Pittsburgh. You’ve never seen Brady scream at a teammate or coach and hurl his helmet?
The narrative that Brown is too much the diva and lacks the self-control to be a Patriot is nonsense. Brown is all about self-control; it’s just not the brand that certain NFL martinets seek.