Players are people too, but not all are very good people.
Former Oakland Raiders star wide receiver Antonio Brown seems to prove this, given his recent antics, which include: being late to his own introductory press conference, missing training camp as a result of frostbitten feet, threatening to retire because his (outdated) helmet of choice did not meet NFL safety requirements, skipping mandatory team meetings, cursing out and threatening to punch Raiders general manager Mike Mayock in the face, and begging the team to release him via Instagram (to which they obliged).
You would think Brown would struggle to find another team after all that, but you would be wrong. Just hours after Oakland released Brown, the New England Patriots signed him to a one year, $15 million contract. Oh, and days after joining the Patriots, Brown was accused of sexual assault and rape in a civil lawsuit filed by his former trainer, Britney Taylor. Yet he still caught a touchdown pass last week.
What gives? Why does Brown continue to not only get away with this behavior, but be rewarded for it?
Because he knows how to put on a show.
The NFL is an entertainment company at its core. It creates a product that is meant to excite its audience, and there are few things more captivating than a compelling character.
But in a league where all players have one thing in common (they are extremely good at football), what sets Brown apart? It’s the fact that he is not perfect off the field — the fact that he does and says things others would never do.
The NFL cannot make a media circus out of quiet, humble stars like Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, who has produced on a similarly elite level to Brown since his NFL debut in 2014. So, they need headline-makers. Brown is a wacky, oftentimes problematic character to whom most teams around the league would be happy to pay millions as long as he can catch a football, sell jerseys, and increase viewership.
But the NFL’s willingness to give Brown a platform should not be confused with a willingness to give its players power. Unlike the NBA, whose marketing strategy capitalizes on its larger-than-life players and their personalities, the NFL prefers to put the spotlight on its franchises and the moments they create. Of course, the league wants and needs players who can be recognized with their helmets off (Brown being one of them), but never at the expense of a player’s brand becoming bigger than their own.
Take former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for instance. Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality against black people in this country. His protest was silent, but it was powerful. Kaepernick made national news, especially when other players joined his movement.
But the NFL couldn’t have one of its players getting that much attention, especially when said player jeopardized its apolitical ability to appeal to all Americans. So, teams around the league blacklisted Kaepernick, and he was released by the 49ers. All of a sudden, a quarterback who had led his team to the Super Bowl a few years earlier could not even make the cut as the third-string option for the worst teams in the league. This was not for lack of talent on his part, but because he refused to conform to the NFL’s ideas for what is and isn’t acceptable for a player to do.
Kaepernick’s headlines hurt NFL sales. Brown’s helps them. Regardless of whether or not you like Antonio Brown (which a surprising number of fans and fellow players alike do), most of us are at least slightly interested to see what he does next, on or off the field. We are in an era where athletes are starting to be valued for their role as entertainers almost as much as they are valued for their on-field exploits. To be clear, Antonio Brown is also an immensely talented player, and having a Pro Bowler on your team never hurts. But it’s even better when that Pro Bowler has millions of followers on social media, an eccentric hairstyle, and the ability to get neutral fans to tune into your games.
We are in an era where athletes are starting to be valued for their role as entertainers almost as much as they are valued for their on-field exploits.
That being said, neither Brown’s high jinks nor his ability to play football should excuse his actions, especially not if the egregious sexual misconduct allegations levied against him are accurate. It is a fan’s choice to love a player who speaks his mind when others would not, who tirelessly produces controversial content for social media, and who has a sense of self-confidence edging on narcissism — and it is the league’s choice to reward players like this. While this behavior is entertaining, we should be careful about the kind of values this reflects. It seems that we are becoming more and more comfortable prioritizing talent and entertainment over morality, but at a certain point a line must be drawn.
Antonio Brown is dangerously close to crossing that line.