Editor’s note: The Patriots released Antonio Brown on Sept. 20. For more, click here.
Signing Antonio Brown and sticking with him despite serious sexual assault allegations says a lot about the New England Patriots, owner Robert Kraft, and coach and general manager Bill Belichick.
But it also says something about the howling throngs who are happy to embrace this troubled and troubling athlete as long as he catches footballs. “It’s a greater lesson about fans,” said Upton Bell, author of “Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game,” as well as a onetime NFL executive and son of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell.
“Two weeks ago, Antonio Brown was the biggest fool around,” said Bell. Other teams that swallowed what he dished out were a “bunch of suckers.” But after Brown snagged four passes from Tom Brady against the Miami Dolphins, including a 20-yard touchdown, he’s more than any bad guy — “He is our bad guy,” said Bell.
As long as a player is seen as a ticket to a Super Bowl, all is forgiven — everything except taking a knee during the national anthem. Fans across the country regularly side with players accused of assault and domestic abuse. For example, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended in 2014 by the NFL after a video showed him dragging his then-fiancee out of an Atlantic City casino. But Rice got a standing ovation when he jogged onto the field during training camp practice.
When the Patriots signed Brown, he already had a long history as a gifted but problematic player. That history grew darker when Britney Taylor, a former trainer, filed a civil suit against Brown, alleging that he sexually assaulted her. Just as Taylor’s accusations were being dismissed by Brown’s agent as “a money grab,” Sports Illustrated reported a second incident of alleged sexual misconduct by Brown, along with disturbing accounts of alleged domestic abuse, unpaid debts, and bizarre mistreatment of former employees and associates.
NFL officials reportedly spent 10 hours interviewing Taylor on Monday; if he chooses, Commissioner Roger Goodell could put Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list, the equivalent of paid leave. But any pressure to do so won’t come from fans. They just want to vanquish their team’s helmeted rivals. For ownership, it’s “win or perish,” said Bell, who as a Patriots GM back in the early 1970s, knows what it’s like on the perish side.
So if winning is everything, what incentive is there for an owner like Kraft to change his mind about keeping Brown on the Patriots?
Kraft would have to think of all the kids and grandkids out there who still believe in Santa Claus and “the Patriot Way.” He would have to look at Brown and say that this enormously talented athlete is simply too flawed a human being to wear a Patriots uniform.
He would have to tell 42-year-old Tom Brady he can’t have Brown as his personal security blanket. Kraft would have to tell Belichick he will have to try for a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl win without Brown. Kraft would have to consult that old-fashioned thing called a moral compass, decide what is right and wrong, and act accordingly. Of course, Kraft wants the world to think that’s what he always does. That’s why he put out word that he would not have signed Brown if he had known about the sexual assault allegations that came out after the deal was done. Well, he knows about them now, and so far, Brown is still around. So much for the statement Kraft gave after he was charged with soliciting prostitution in Florida, a charge he is still fighting: “I am truly sorry. I have extraordinary respect for women.”
To show that respect, Kraft would have to tell Patriots fans who are spoiled rotten by victory, but always baying for more, that keeping Brown isn’t worth the baggage he already carries.
It would be so much easier for Kraft to do the right thing if Brown dropped the ball four times instead of catching it. Then Patriots fans would be happy to call Brown what he already is in life, if not football — a loser.