Three questions: Antonio Brown, the latest NFL morality test

Why We Wrote This

The NFL has taken steps to curb player violence against women. Sexual assault allegations against Antonio Brown put a spotlight on the league's approach. 

AP Photo/Steven Senne
Wide receiver Antonio Brown attends practice, Sept. 18, 2019, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was cut from the New England Patriots Friday, Sept. 20.

Updated Friday, 6 p.m. 

On Friday, the New England Patriots released Antonio Brown from the team, just 11 days after hiring him. In a game dominated by passing, Mr. Brown is one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League. But three days after joining the 2019 Super Bowl champs, Mr. Brown became the latest moral test of the NFL’s commitment to address violence against women by its players.  

1. What’s the case against Antonio Brown?

A civil lawsuit filed Sept. 10 accuses him of two incidents of sexual battery in 2017 and a rape in 2018. He denies the allegations, and a statement by his lawyer says that Mr. Brown had a “consensual personal relationship” with his accuser, Britney Taylor. The two were friends in college, and later he hired her as a personal trainer. Mr. Brown reportedly turned down an offer to settle the suit for $2 million. Another sexual misconduct allegation against  Mr. Brown surfaced this week. 

2.  Could another NFL team hire Mr. Brown?

Yes. Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs cut running back Kareem Hunt after a video emerged of him assaulting a woman in a hotel. He was quickly hired by the Cleveland Browns, and is currently serving an eight-game suspension.

The Patriots released Mr. Brown after he sent intimidating text messages Wednesday to another woman, who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances, Sports Illustrated reported. Mr. Brown's agent said on Twitter Friday after his release from the Patriots: "Antonio is healthy and is looking forward to his next opportunity in the NFL. He wants to play the game he loves and he hopes to play for another team soon.’’

After eight years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mr. Brown has been jettisoned from three teams in short order. Most observers say that the accusations  - and his off-field behavior - make it unlikely that another team will hire him, at least not this season. 

Whether he plays or not is likely to be decided by the NFL. He has not been charged with a crime. He faces a civil lawsuit. But given the controversy, and potential damage to the league’s reputation, if another team chose to hire Mr. Brown, he could be placed on the NFL commissioner’s “exempt list” – effectively a paid suspension.

A player can be put on the exempt list if one of two criteria is met: (1) A player is formally charged with a violent crime. (2) An NFL investigation leads the commissioner to believe a player “may have violated” the league’s personal conduct policy

On Monday, NFL investigators reportedly met with Ms. Taylor for 10 hours of interviews. With an investigation underway, the NFL commissioner may now have grounds for believing that Mr. Brown “may have violated” the personal conduct policy – the second criteria for a suspension. “The speed at which the league has moved to interview Taylor – coming less than one week after she filed her civil lawsuit – suggests to me that a decision to place Brown on the exempt list is coming sooner rather than later,” writes Daniel Wallach at The Athletic (paid subscription). 

3. What is the NFL doing about player violence against women?

Five years ago, public outcry reached a crescendo when the NFL gave a two-game suspension to Ray Rice, after a video showed the Baltimore Ravens player punching and dragging his then-fiancée by her hair out of an elevator in Atlantic City. Mr. Rice was later fired by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the NFL (a decision later overturned in court). 

The Rice incident led to several steps, including a new NFL personal conduct policy, a minimum six-game suspension for players who commit abusive acts against a spouse or partner, funds for the education of players, services for victims and violators, and a special counsel for investigations and conduct. But on Sept. 5, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut wrote on Twitter: “The NFL has failed to lead on the issue of domestic violence & sexual assault by its players. ... I’m demanding Commissioner [Roger] Goodell take stronger action.” 

If history is any indication, a full NFL investigation into the allegations about Mr. Brown could take months. A domestic violence investigation of Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys star running back, took a year and led to a six-game suspension in 2017. 

The courts will determine what’s fair and just for Ms. Taylor and Mr. Brown under the law. That takes time, observes Susan Mullane, associate professor and coordinator of the sports administration program at the University of Miami. But the NFL is a business. She adds in an email (before the Patriots released him): “The decision on whether to suspend [Mr. Brown] will not necessarily be based on fairness, ethics, or the law, but what is best for the NFL.”

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