NFL finds useful loophole to keep Antonio Brown unemployed

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As the Scale of Sympathetic figures go, Antonio Brown falls far closer to O.J. Simpson than Homer. But this doesn’t mean that the former Steelers, Raiders, and Patriots receiver doesn’t have rights.

He does, as eventually will be evidenced by the umpteen grievances he’ll pursue against his two most recent teams, one or more of which (but not many) actually may prevail. He also has rights under the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, rights that either will or won’t be honored during the ongoing investigation sparked by last month’s civil lawsuit filed against him, alleging sexual assault and rape.

There’s one right he doesn’t specifically have, but that all players should. Perhaps, in the next iteration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, all players will have this right. It’s basically a right to not be, for lack of a better phrase, jerked around by a process that, as a practical matter, has him essentially serving an unpaid suspension while the NFL’s wheels of justice grind ever-so-slowly.

The report from earlier this week that Brown has yet to be interviewed is no surprise. The league interviews the accused as the final step of the investigation. And it’s unclear what else the league is doing to get to the point that Brown’s version of the events will be harvested. But it is clear that the league isn’t moving with all deliberate speed to get this wrapped up.

Intended or not, it’s a perfect loophole to keep Brown out of the league. Although multiple teams remain interested in Brown, no one will sign Brown because the NFL won’t say whether Brown is destined for the Commissioner-Exempt list, which would require his next team to pay him to not play.

So why not say so? Surely by now the NFL has enough information to determine whether Brown “may have violated” the Personal Conduct Policy. If so, then he’d be on the Commissioner-Exempt list if he’s signed. If not, he wouldn’t be — and someone would then potentially sign him and employ him until the investigation is finalized and discipline, if any, is imposed.

While the handling of Brown doesn’t amount to collusion in violation of the labor deal (e.g., the league office directing all teams not to sign a given player), it operates in the same way. Because the league won’t say whether Brown will be placed on unpaid suspension while he’s unemployed, no one will assume the risk of hiring him, taking the P.R. hit that would go along with it, and then having to decide whether to quickly cut him or pay him not to play, if he quickly lands on the Commissioner-Exempt list.

Again, no one is shedding tears for Brown. Even if he’s not guilty of sexual assault or rape, he has said and done enough to turn most fans against him. But there’s a broader principle at play here, one that can be used against any player — including players who haven’t seen their image and reputation completely disintegrate.