Opinion: Turns out the right thing is to let Antonio Brown play … pending further review
Good call, Roger.
Antonio Brown is slated to make his debut with the New England Patriots on Sunday despite the horrendous allegations of sexual assault that surfaced this week in a civil lawsuit.
In this case, Roger Goodell’s decision to allow Brown to play by not putting him on the commissioner’s exempt list is not only the right thing to do … it’s apparently the legal thing to do.
Never mind the suggestions – including my initial reaction earlier this week – that Brown should sit while the NFL investigated the allegations and use the exempt-list option as a pause button.
No, in this case, Brown should be on the field…pending further review.
New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown warms up during practice at Gillette Stadium. (Photo: Greg M. Cooper, USA TODAY Sports)
Putting Brown on the exempt list based on what we know now – and without any formal criminal proceedings attached to it — would largely conflict with the NFL’s own personal conduct policy with regards to the standards to be applied for such an action.
The leak from NFL headquarters this week contending that the league was “seriously considering” putting Brown on the exempt list seems like a stretch. Yes, there’s language in the policy that allows Goodell the authority to place a player on the list as an investigation is conducted because of a “suspected” crime of violence. But the strongest language in the policy that outlines the conditions for such action involve 1) a player being formally charged or 2) an NFL investigation backed by evidence leads the commissioner to believe the policy has been violated – neither of which is the case with Brown at this point.
Regardless if the allegations are to be believed or not – Britney Taylor, a former gymnast who worked as a part-time trainer for Brown, is seeking a monetary award stemming from an alleged rape and two other instances of alleged sexual assault from three separate encounters with Brown in 2017 and 2018 – the NFL doesn’t have the evidence at this point to take such a drastic action.
Maybe this leads to a violation of the personal conduct policy that warrants discipline. But there’s no need to jump to a conclusion at this point – and putting Brown on the exempt list, intended or not, would surely signal that discipline is coming.
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The purpose of the list is admirable. Take a player off the field, with pay, while his legal case plays out. That made sense in 2014, when Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson went on the list.
It doesn’t make sense now, the difference being that the cases of Hardy and Peterson were criminal matters that had advanced with criminal evidence.
In Brown’s case, there’s not even as much as a police report – just an attempt for a cash award, a “money grab,” as Brown’s attorney put it – for the NFL to begin its investigation with.
That’s not to conclude that the allegations are false. I don’t know and the NFL doesn’t know, either.
Yet if Brown were placed on the list at this point – it could still happen in ensuing weeks, pending on what the NFL finds in an investigation that includes interviewing Taylor next week – it would undoubtedly heighten the risk that has long been a concern that high-profile players would be subjected to double-standard claims supported by little or no evidence.
No doubt, Brown is an easy target right now – and he has seemingly contributed to that with his handling of various situations. Consider all the negativity that surrounded his stormy exit from the Oakland Raiders and before that, incidents that hasted the willingness of the Pittsburgh Steelers to trade away the best wide receiver in football. Away from football, there was the case of tossing furniture from a balcony that came dangerously close to striking a child.
And the text messages to Taylor included in the civil complaint? If authentic, very distasteful.
Yet while this string of events involving Brown can certainly influence your judgment about his character, manner of relating to people and processing of decisions, they don’t prove the allegations that form the basis of the lawsuit.
Putting Brown on the exempt list without concrete evidence of a crime would also fuel the perception that he is guilty of the allegations. That would be so unfair. In this age of NFL enlightenment regarding social justice, here’s an innocent-until-proven-guilty case that apparently resonates as it should in the board room at NFL headquarters.
Sure, the drama with Brown has been over the top. Brown apparently had to be separated from Raiders GM Mike Mayock in an incident that hastened his release, after the receiver posted on social media the fine letter he received from the GM. The flap with the NFL over the outdated helmet that Brown wanted to wear, which followed the foot injuries sustained during cryotherapy, turned people off, too. Then there was the dispute with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that was included in the mix with an apparent injury in December that resulted in him missing the finale last season while his team was in the hunt for a playoff berth.
But that’s not what Goodell & Co. considered – with NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith undoubtedly keeping tabs on — in picking up this fresh Brown case this week.
This isn’t about effectively punishing a player fueling attention that cast a pall over the league’s celebration of it’s 100th season. It’s about these very serious sexual assault allegations. And not about the laundry list of Brown’s issues.
Sure, people want answers. And fast. But tap the brakes. Careful deliberation is the responsible approach – even while at least one group that supports victims of sexual abuse on Wednesday immediately called for Patriots owner Robert Kraft to dump Brown – that weigh many variables. Sure, it could be frustrating to not be expedient. But due diligence is not often executed at warp speed.
Let’s see what the investigation turns up. The interview with Taylor – who agreed to speak to the NFL after her wedding this weekend — is obviously crucial. With all due respect and sensitivity for victims of abuse, perhaps there will be explanations for not pursuing a criminal case.
Typically, the NFL picks up these cases that involve potential discipline after they have been pursued by police and prosecutors – with a police report and possibly incriminating evidence as a starting point. If that existed in this case, then Brown might be on the exempt list with no questions asked.
That’s not what’s here.
Beyond that, Brown’s lawyer, Darren Heitner, has maintained that Taylor sought a $1.6 million “investment” from Brown and asked for tickets to Steelers games. He also described the relations between Brown and Taylor as “consensual” as their contact resumed after the first alleged incident.
Without further evidence, it is a matter of he-said vs. she-said.
And at this point, Goodell has rightfully determined that’s not a strong enough reason to take Brown off the field.
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