When word spread this week about the latest development involving Antonio Brown, a man who has seemingly commandeered more headlines this month than the last year of Watergate, the explosiveness of the news caused jaws to drop league-wide.
That sentiment applied to those working at 850 Park Ave. in New York. For those in the league office, the news of Brown being accused of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court must have felt familiar as commissioner Roger Goodell and his lieutenants again found themselves figuring out what to do with a star player stuck in a legal situation that stands to bring only negative attention to their cherished shield.
Nothing bothers the NFL more than situations like this. That became clear in 2017, when the league unnecessarily treated the small number of players who kneeled during the anthem as an existential crisis. To the league, it mattered little that the players, most of whom were African Americans, were doing it as a means of protesting police brutality and racial injustice. No. The main reason the NFL didn’t like it was because the gestures were unpopular with a segment of the sport’s fans, something that could hurt the league’s money. So the league viewed the kneeling as something that needed to be curbed, and the NFL pulled out all the stops to do so, including committing $100 million to the Players Coalition causes.
Yet, it’s strangely appropriate that after all that, Goodell still can’t keep his shield from taking off-field dents, all due to these legal situations involving star players. Prior to Brown, there were already two examples from this year in Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, who found himself at the center of a child-abuse investigation in March, and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who got into an altercation with a security guard in May in Las Vegas.
Due to Goodell’s history as an aggressive disciplinarian even in the face of scant evidence — (cough) deflate-gate (cough) — it was widely assumed both players would be punished in some fashion, in part because of their histories (both have prior incidents, with Elliott notably serving a six-game suspension in 2017) and because the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the players union essentially allows Goodell to discipline players for simply making the league look bad. It’s a flex that Goodell hasn’t hesitated to use, especially after he got destroyed in the court of public opinion for the way he bungled the Ray Rice situation in 2014.
Yet, when no criminal charges were filed against Hill or Elliott, Goodell shocked many this summer by not punishing either player, instead issuing stern warnings. Reactions league-wide among fans ranged from surprise to anger, with the latter particularly applying to Hill, as many latched onto his “you ought to be terrified of me too” line to his then-fiancee — the same woman who was involved in his 2014 domestic violence incident that he pleaded guilty to — in a secret recording that was released to the public.
Those folks were already expecting some form of punishment, but the truth is, the league would have been criticized if they’d gotten their way, too. Had the NFL disciplined Hill, Chiefs fans would have been the ones howling about the decision, all because of a lack of incriminating evidence — just like Patriots fans did when Goodell punished their favorite team for deflated footballs.
So, the Hill case was a no-win situation for the league and Brown’s current legal situation might be, too. Brown has strongly proclaimed his innocence while his accuser, Britney Taylor, released a strong statement proclaiming her insistence of his guilt. Because of this — and the high likelihood that most people interested won’t read all the available material on the matter over the coming days — there’s a good chance that many have already made up their minds, meaning no matter what Goodell decides down the road, there will be a segment of the public unhappy with him.
Taylor has expressed an interest in meeting with the NFL to discuss her accusations, which should ultimately aid the league’s decision-making process. In the meantime, the NFL also finds itself weighing whether to place Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list while it investigates, which would allow Brown to continue receiving a paycheck but prevent him from playing or practicing.
Though much remains murky about Brown’s current status, this much is clear: all eyes will be on how Goodell and the league handle yet another serious situation involving one of the league’s star players.
Anything short of “fair” will be chum for the steady stream of critics who can’t wait to hammer arguably the most attackable sports commissioner in America.
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