It’s difficult to know how to feel about the strange saga of Antonio Brown, the mercurial and gifted (former) NFL receiver. On the one hand, we find his behavior inexplicable, bratty and obnoxious. But then you wonder if he deserves compassion, as Tom Brady said.
He’s not the first star athlete to torpedo his own career and act out in inexplicable ways — think Plaxico Burress, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, Dennis Rodman, Johnny Manziel, Martavis Bryant (Brown’s former teammate) and Le’Veon Bell (Brown’s former teammate) among others.
But maybe there’s something going on here for someone who, after nine years of brilliant play and good behavior, suddenly changes into a man out of control and acting in such self-destructive ways.
In the latest episode of Brown’s undoing, he undressed on the sideline during the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the New York Jets and left the field. He removed his Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey, his shoulder pads, gloves and T-shirt (and let’s thank him for not going further) and tossed them to the crowd as he began to walk, shirtless, out of the stadium, but not before he performed jumping jacks in the end zone and waved to the crowd as if he were in the Macy’s parade.
Brown said his coach, Bruce Arians, wanted him to enter the game but he had an injured ankle and refused. Arians told Fox Sports that nothing was said about an injury and that when Brown refused to go into the game twice he was told to leave. Arians said afterward that Brown is no longer a member of the team, but even that is uncertain.
This is just one in a long list of similarly strange acts by Brown, and why he has been on four teams in four years, having been granted second, third and fourth chances, all of them by Super Bowl-winning coaches.
Many have openly questioned Brown’s mental health and some attribute his changed behavior to two brutal hits he took from serial-dirty player Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals. The first came during a playoff game in January 2016 in which Burfict delivered a high-speed helmet-to-helmet hit as Brown was racing across the field. Brown fell to the turf like a rag doll and he remained sprawled on the field for several minutes. He missed the following week’s game, and Burfict was suspended for three games.
Brown was victimized again by the Bengals in 2018 when he was crushed by three defenders almost simultaneously, one of which was Burfict. Brown was helped off the field; Burfict was fined $112,000.
A few months earlier, Brown was accused of tossing furniture out the window of a fourth-floor apartment that nearly struck a child, which led to lawsuits and settlements. But Brown’s meltdown with the Steelers began near the end of the 2018 season and since then he has been on four teams in four years. He’s cost himself a spot in the Hall of Fame, millions of dollars and several years of playing a game for a living.
At the height of his powers, Brown was the best receiver in the NFL, if not the best player period. He was headed for the Hall of Fame during nine remarkable seasons with the Steelers and then unraveled right before our eyes. Late in the 2018 season he reportedly argued with his quarterback and skipped practices. He was placed on the inactive list and left the next game at halftime.
When Brown requested a trade, the Steelers obliged and sent him to the Raiders. He was gone before the season began. He skipped most of training camp and got into a protracted, public spat with the league about wearing his old (banned) helmet, of all things. He was fined $54,000 for missing practices. He confronted GM Mike Mayock in a heated verbal altercation, which led to a $215,000 fine. He demanded to be released. The Raiders obliged.
The day the Raiders released Brown he was signed by the Patriots to a one-year contract worth $15 million with a $9 million signing bonus. He played one game, scored one touchdown and was gone. The Patriots cut him after Brown’s former personal trainer accused him of sexual misconduct.
He missed the rest of the 2019 season and the first half of the 2020 season, the latter while serving a suspension for the sexual misconduct allegations. By then he had already been involved in several domestic disputes that drew police attention and then he and another man were accused of attacking a moving truck driver, which led to more trouble with the law. Nevertheless, the Buccaneers signed Brown to a one-year deal. He was a solid performer the second half of the season and scored a touchdown in the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory.
But this season Brown got caught up in more shenanigans. He was suspended for three games for using a fake COVID-19 vaccination card. Then he left the Jets game and that was that.
Not even quarterback Brady could rescue Brown at this point. The quarterback reportedly convinced Arians to sign Brown in the first place after the coach had stated publicly that he was not a good fit. While the reaction to Sunday’s walk off was largely one of condemnation and outrage, Brady asked for something more.
“I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic with some difficult things that are happening,” Brady said. “Everyone should do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs. We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him be at his best.”