Antonio Brown is exposing Roger Goodell's unchecked power to shut players out of the NFL

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Sometimes, the least sympathetic NFL figures end up exposing the league’s most undeniable issues.

That’s the space Antonio Brown occupies today. He’s a man with a litany of self-inflicted problems on his hands, whose two-month pseudo-suspension from the NFL is a concern for the league’s players and the union that is charged with protecting them. That’s not a popular assessment because it wades dangerously close to calling Brown a victim of the NFL’s judicial system. But it is an accurate assessment because there’s little doubt the league’s nebulous investigative purgatory — in which there is no guarantee of fairness, due process or expeditious action — had a hand in keeping him without a job.

Antonio Brown had quite a Thursday on social media, lashing out at the league as he's still on the outside looking in. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Antonio Brown had quite a Thursday on social media, lashing out at the league as he's still on the outside looking in. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

We couldn’t say this before we knew for sure that other NFL teams were interested in Brown. But when the Seattle Seahawks did their due diligence on him and passed in favor of Josh Gordon, there was no longer an argument over whether an open-ended league investigation could be considered a problem.

Brown had interest. And according to a source close to the wideout, the league’s vaguely defined investigation into him became a hurdle. That alone is enough to raise an eyebrow about the power the NFL is wielding — especially the potential to leverage a cloaked justice system to warp a player’s employment prospects.

This is the issue that has left Brown seething, while perplexing the job-hunting efforts of his legal and football camp: By putting out a statement in September that Brown was under investigation — and that he might be subject to a suspension upon his signing by another NFL team — the league either accidentally or purposely cast a pall on his employment. Then it went about a completely opaque investigation that didn’t schedule a sit-down with Brown for nearly two months, assuming that next week’s reported meeting with the league actually takes place.

Of course, Brown isn’t winning public sentiment in his complaints about the NFL freezing him out, largely because of the raging dumpster fire he has inhabited over the past year of his career.

To wit:

Brown is facing allegations of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit by his former trainer, while also having been accused of sexual misconduct by a second woman in a Sports Illustrated report. He has allegedly engaged in text message and social-media intimidation of the people who have challenged his innocence, including endorsing Twitter threats against at least one reporter. He has taken shots at former teammates in Pittsburgh; allegedly engaged in a racist verbal confrontation with his general manager in Oakland; and highlighted the solicitation charges of the team owner in New England, where he was last employed. Not to mention a petulant exchange during a deposition in a civil case accusing him of property destruction. And if all of that wasn’t enough, he’s got financial grievances pending against two of his previous teams and his social-media behavior has exhibited wild emotional swings.

Then on Thursday came an all-time punctuation point, with Brown going to Twitter and Instagram to encourage the NFL to “go f- - -” itself.

This not a helpful dossier of behavior when it comes time to complain about the NFL’s snail-paced investigation. In the eyes of Brown and his camp, all of that should be irrelevant when it comes down to the basic fairness of the league’s judicial process. In their estimation, the past two months are a representation of the NFL dragging its feet to eat up a significant portion of the 2019 season, while cutting off a path to any return to the league in the near future.

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Brown and his camp are not alone in that assessment. Indeed, two lawyers who have waged significant battles with the NFL pertaining to the league’s investigative system and the collective-bargaining agreement both opined separately that Brown’s case is another example of commissioner Roger Goodell abusing the broad powers given to him under the last CBA.

Both cited Brown’s “purgatory” as being as significant as two other massive fights between players and Goodell: Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game domestic-violence suspension, which went against a “no suspension” recommendation of one of the league’s own investigators; and Tom Brady’s four-game suspension in deflate-gate, which was largely built on questionable science and Brady failing to turn over his phone to league investigators.

Both lawyers said Brown’s current issue is just as egregious as those previous cases — but for a different reason. Specifically, Brown’s fate shows what can happen when the league launches an investigation against a player who doesn’t have the support of a team owner to influence the speed of the process.

“[Elliott] and Brady were already stars on teams that were going to defend them along the way. That alone pushes some immediacy,” said one of the lawyers, who has multiple NFL clients. “[Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones basically started a war with the league office over [Elliott’s] case. And with Tom Brady, [New England Patriots owner] Robert Kraft was on his side. … Antonio Brown doesn’t have an owner expecting some kind of quick resolution. That’s why he’s just sitting there without any recourse right now. He’s showing how far Goodell can take that CBA power. What have we heard from the union? Where is the union on this? Who’s putting pressure on Goodell for some kind of due process? It’s basically Antonio Brown and his lawyers, which is probably why he’s flipping out on social media.”

Added a second lawyer with prominent NFL clients, “I’d have filed a grievance against the NFL by now. Just for the PR win, that would be the best move. The grievance doesn’t have to say ‘I’m right’ or ‘I’m wrong.’ The grievance simply has to say, ‘I want due process promptly.’ Then I would basically color it and say, ‘Because I didn’t do anything. Go ahead and investigate me. Ask all the questions. Someone sues me civilly and there are no criminal charges and all of the sudden my career is over? If they want to charge me criminally, fine. The police want to say they’re investigating me? Fine. But someone files a civil lawsuit? Anyone can file a civil lawsuit.’ That’s how I would posture the whole thing. … What’s [the NFL’s] response? What are they going to say, ‘No, we don’t want to go fast’? Force them to respond.”

In point of fact, that’s precisely what the NFL can say during its investigative process. It’s why a grievance requesting due process is a lost cause — the CBA doesn’t guarantee timeliness in investigations. As was showcased by Jones’ anger in the Elliott case, investigations can linger for weeks, months or more than a year without a result. And that’s precisely what the NFL could do with Brown, too. It could declare that investigators are “gathering evidence” even after meeting with Brown. In theory, it could even wait until after Brown’s civil case has run its course before determining any kind of suspension.

Brown is acutely aware of this by now. He’s also aware that any sit-down with the NFL doesn’t mean the probe into him will conclude before the end of the 2019 season. If you want clues into his frustration with the league, start with the lack of transparency over how long he could be under a cloud of investigation.

It mattered when the Seahawks did their due diligence and it will matter when the next NFL team begins poking around. But until the union or a team owner steps in for Brown, the league will be free to extend this investigation as long as it wishes. And the resulting cloud created by such an unknown may very well leave Brown without a job in the NFL in perpetuity.

That limbo might be exactly what the NFL wants — the absolute power to suspend without suspending. Another tool to wield in the league’s system of justice, with nobody capable of defending against it. Antonio Brown might not be the most unsympathetic person to expose it, but it doesn't mean he's wrong, either.


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