Having cast this year as a celebration of its history, the National Football League has instead seen its 100th season commandeered by the antics and alleged transgressions of star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who in the past week upended the league’s player empowerment paradigm and embroiled the NFL in another firestorm regarding violence against women.
On Tuesday night, a former college classmate and trainer of Brown’s accused him of rape and sexual assault in a federal lawsuit, alleging three instances from 2017 to 2018. Through his attorney, Brown denied the claims and called the woman’s lawsuit “a money grab.” The NFL was still weighing its options as Brown practiced Wednesday afternoon with his second new team of the summer, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
The accusations emerged three days after the Patriots signed Brown, 31, a transaction made possible after Brown forced his way off the Oakland Raiders. Brown came to training camp with frostbitten feet after a cryotherapy accident, refused to wear a helmet up to league standards, screamed at one boss, recorded a phone conversation with another and published it online, and demanded his release on social media. In the end, Brown had engineered his own path from Oakland to New England.
The saga surfaced a confluence of cultural and moral issues that have vexed the United States’ most powerful sports league. Brown’s initial actions raised questions regarding individual expression within a league built on a team-over-self ethos and the control players should be allowed to exert over their movement between teams.
The latest development forces the NFL to make another high-profile decision about how it should respond to cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, which have tormented the tenure of Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Brown has denied the allegations his former trainer, Britney Taylor, made against him. One women’s advocacy group, UltraViolet, called on the Patriots to cut Brown. The NFL is considering placing Brown on paid leave via its commissioner’s exempt list, according to multiple people familiar with the league’s thinking. The league created the list, in part, to give itself another option when presented with cases that have confounded the league since its controversial handling of the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in 2014.
“What I want to emphasize to everybody is please allow the situation to play itself out,” Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said Wednesday on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” “Antonio will cooperate. He will cooperate with the Patriots, with the NFL, with any investigation, with the [NFL Players Association], and in time Antonio will be cleared. These allegations in the lawsuit are false. They are not true. They are absolutely not true.”
It does not appear that Taylor contacted police regarding her accusations against Brown, and Brown does not appear to have a criminal record in either Pennsylvania or Florida, where he lives. Last year, Brown faced two lawsuits for allegedly throwing furniture off his 14th-story balcony. The landlord sued for damages, and another plaintiff sued him for allegedly nearly hitting a child with the furniture.
Before the past year, Brown exemplified the NFL long-shot story, the overlooked player who outworked peers on the way to stardom. Brown grew up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Florida State halted its recruitment of Brown because of academic issues, and Brown landed at small-conference Central Michigan. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the sixth round, after teams had chosen 194 players before him.
Brown blossomed into one of the league’s most productive wide receivers. As his stature grew, Brown gravitated toward celebrity. He endorsed Nike, Pepsi and Pizza Hut. He appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Masked Singer” and posted constantly on social media.
“I can’t really express myself in this game,” Brown once told reporters in Pittsburgh. “I can’t really tell you how I feel.”
Brown’s outlook clashed with the NFL’s ingrained disposition. The league’s helmeted players, outside of quarterbacks, rarely transcend the sport. The vast majority of player contracts are not fully guaranteed, and teams can assert control with negotiating tools such as the franchise tag to restrict a player’s ability to hit the open market.
Brown’s desire for a reworked contract came to a head last season, and a dispute with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and anger with Steelers officials led to him missing the team’s crucial season finale last year.
Pittsburgh traded Brown to the Raiders at a bargain price, and the Raiders appeased him by giving him roughly $30 million in guaranteed money. He reported to Raiders training camp in a hot-air balloon, but he could not practice at first because of the injuries to his feet he suffered while getting cryotherapy treatments in France.
Brown’s actions only became more bizarre. He reportedly threatened retirement because he would not switch to a helmet acceptable under the NFL’s safety guidelines. When the Raiders fined him for missing practice, Brown posted the fine letter on social media and confronted General Manager Mike Mayock, reportedly cursing at him and nearly coming to blows. Later, he posted a slickly produced video that included a recorded phone call with Oakland Coach Jon Gruden.
Brown posted his desire for the Raiders to release him on Instagram. When they did, he posted a video of himself celebrating on Twitter. “I’m free!” he yelled.
The next day, Brown agreed to a one-year contract with the Patriots that included a $9 million signing bonus. The rapidity of the transaction stunned NFL executives, who wondered whether Brown knew he could land with a Super Bowl contender if he caused enough chaos for the Raiders to release him. He had effectively chosen where to play by making himself a disruption, well outside the league’s player-movement norms.
The inclusion of the Patriots in Brown’s saga adds another layer for the league to sift through. The Patriots are the league’s most successful franchise, winners of six Super Bowls during the nearly two-decade union between Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. But they also have been at the center of several controversies, both on the field and off.
They have been punished for illicitly taping opponents’ signals. The league suspended Brady for four games in 2017 for not cooperating with the league’s investigation into his alleged tampering with footballs. Most seriously, the Patriots employed Aaron Hernandez, who took his own life in prison after he was found guilty of murder.
In February, Florida prosecutors charged owner Robert Kraft with prostitution solicitation. While Kraft has avoided conviction, the league under its personal conduct policy has punished players who faced criminal charges without being found guilty by the legal system. It has not fined or suspended Kraft.
“Throughout my life, I have always tried to do the right thing,” Kraft said in a statement in March. “The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect another human being. I have extraordinary respect for women.”
On Wednesday, Belichick cut short his late-morning news conference after roughly four minutes, tired of persistent questions about Brown’s status. He repeatedly said the Patriots, who play the Dolphins this week, were “working on Miami.”
Brown later joined his teammates at the Patriots’ practice, wearing No. 1 on his uniform.
Mark Maske and Will Hobson contributed to this report.