Unusual issues have surrounded All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown over the last month.
From suffering frostbite after failing to wear proper footwear during cryotherapy, to pursuing two grievances over a helmet policy that his union negotiated for players’ safety, to arguing with Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and posting on Instagram a photo of a letter from Mayock about Brown’s fines, to recording a phone conversation with Raiders coach Jon Gruden and publishing the recording on YouTube, to his abrupt Raiders release and to his seemingly instantaneous signing with the New England Patriots, the 31-year-old native of Miami has attracted a mixture of scorn, shock and surprise. Brown has been labeled eccentric and self-absorbed, among other often unflattering characteristics.
On Tuesday, Brown was accused of a far more sinister trait: being a rapist.
A former trainer insists that Brown assaulted, harassed and terrorized her
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, 28-year-old trainer Britney Taylor claims that Brown sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018.
Taylor, who resides in Memphis, asserts that she first met Brown in 2010 when both were students at Central Michigan. In her complaint, Taylor claims that after a period of being out of touch with her, Brown re-emerged in 2017 with a Facebook message to her. Brown, as Taylor recalls, asked for her help in him improving flexibility and strength in his ankles and fast-twitch muscles. Taylor noted that she recently opened a training center in Memphis and it had attracted many clients.
Brown and Taylor then began a training relationship. Taylor claims that Brown had other plans. As she tells it, he proceeded to engage in a pattern of unsolicited and at times violent sexual acts targeted at her. This pattern occurred while Brown played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and during occasions when Taylor trained him. Taylor charges that Brown exposed himself in front of her, masturbated near her, ejaculating on her back, kissed her and sexually penetrated her—all without her consent.
In one instance in June of 2017, Taylor recalls staying at Brown’s home in Pittsburgh to help him with a training program. Taylor maintains that she stayed at his home because Brown had not booked a hotel room for her. Taylor insists that while she was getting dressed in a bathroom, Brown walked in with his penis exposed and then grabbed and kissed her. She pushed him away.
Later that month, Taylor remembers watching a church service with Brown on her iPad while she stayed at his home in Miami. Taylor says that she and Brown first met in Central Michigan University’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, as Brown was her bible study partner. Taylor claims that as she watched the church service, Brown apparently moved right behind her and started masturbating. He then ejaculated on her.
Taylor’s complaint includes a screenshot of what she claims are hostile and threatening texts sent by Brown to her that same month.
Taylor cut off contact with Brown after she maintains he terrorized her. Taylor also insists that she never sought a romantic relationship with Brown. She viewed their relationship as akin to a brother-sister, not a boyfriend-girlfriend. Taylor says she never dated Brown and was a serious relationship with another man while Brown, from Taylor’s view, aggressively courted her.
The alleged rape in Miami
According to Taylor, Brown eventually convinced her to see him again. On Sunday, May 20, 2018, Brown allegedly invited Taylor and several other persons—including another football player, who is unnamed in the complaint—to go out to a club in Miami. They traveled in a car rented by Taylor. After spending time at the club, she drove Brown and the other football player back to Brown’s home, where the other football player was staying.
Although Taylor says she intended to simply drop off Brown and the other player, she had to use the bathroom. As she walked towards Brown’s front door, Taylor contends that Brown grabbed her and demanded that she speak with him. Brown then “pulled” Taylor into his bedroom.
After two chatted in Brown’s bedroom, Taylor remembers beginning to walk out of the room. Brown then allegedly “cornered” Taylor and forced her onto a bed. He is accused of then “pushing her face into the mattress and forcibly raping her.” Taylor insists that she “screamed and cried,” and repeatedly yelled “no” and “stop,” but he refused. Brown, who is 5’10 and 185 pounds, allegedly used his size to physically overpower Taylor to the point where she was helpless. She remembers him lifting her dress and telling her, “you know you want this.”
It’s unclear what the other football player in Brown’s house was doing at this time, or if he heard Taylor’s alleged screams.
Taylor managed to exit the bedroom but recalls feeling that she was in a “state of trauma and shock.” She reached the foyer where she collapsed. She then got up and walked to her car. She drove while feeling “dazed and emotionally shattered” and, after falling asleep at a stoplight, eventually returned to her hotel. The next day she returned to Brown’s house to pick up belongings. Brown, as Taylor remembers it, says that Taylor “made him feel like a rapist.” She then flew home to Tennessee.
Taylor’s ongoing trauma and her demands
Taylor argues that the experience with Brown has caused her to suffer “near-daily panic attacks and suicidal ideations.” She lost 30 pounds in one month due to the trauma of the incident. The experience has harmed her career and personal relationships.
It does not appear that Taylor contacted law enforcement about the incident. Her complaint also does not mention that she sought hospitalization, though she does note that she purchased a home pregnancy test and STD test kit from a Walgreens. Taylor remembers calling #TimesUpNow on January 6, 2019. She left a message about the incident but did not name Brown.
Taylor says she had taken a polygraph test and passed it (such test results are often not admissible in trials; even when admissible they tend to have limited impact).
Taylor’s complaint was authored by a group of attorneys, including David Haas of Haas Law in Orange, Fla. Taylor demands a jury trial to hear her three claims for sexual battery, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. These three claims generally refer to a depiction of Brown as willfully committing harmful physical contact on Taylor and knowingly behaving in such an extreme and outrageous manner so as to inflict severe mental distress on Taylor.
Brown will answer the complaint and potentially countersue Taylor
As a starting point, the above narrative is taken from the accuser’s retelling of events. The accusations against Brown are completely new to the public. They will be examined and scrutinized, not only by Brown and his attorneys, but also by the NFL, the Patriots and media.
Brown will also answer the complaint in the coming weeks. He will surely deny the claims. To that point, Brown’s attorney, Darren Heitner, has issued a statement saying that his client “denies each and every allegation in the lawsuit.” Heitner’s statement also depicts Taylor as the culprit. Heitner insists that Taylor sought out Brown’s attention in 2017 with a request that he invest $1.6 million in her business project. Heitner describes the proposed investment as something of a scheme whereby some of the money would be used to purchase property already owned by Taylor and her mother.
After Brown declined to invest the $1.6 million, Taylor, as Heitner tells it, “cut off” communication. A year later, however, Taylor offered to travel to Brown to help him train for the season.
In terms of the alleged rape, Heitner says that Taylor “invited herself” to join Brown and his friends at the Miami nightclub. Heitner also claims Taylor requested that she and Brown return to his home where they had consensual sex.
In a subsequent tweet, Heitner also claims that Brown will explore a countersuit against Taylor. The suit would not be defamation since the litigation privilege exempts statements made in legal proceedings from defamation claims. However, a countersuit could raise a tortious interference with contractual relations claim since Brown could argue Taylor is attempting to harm his NFL career and relationship with the Patriots.
Risks of Pretrial discovery for Brown (and Taylor)
It is notable that Brown did not negotiate a settlement of Taylor’s claims before the lawsuit was filed. Normally there is a demand letter where the defendant has an opportunity to offer a settlement. It’s unclear if attorneys for Brown and Taylor attempted to negotiate a settlement but failed to reach an agreement, or if Brown simply refused to dignify Taylor’s claims.
If the litigation does not settle and assuming it is not dismissed, it will enter a stage of pretrial discovery. During it, Brown and Taylor would be required to answer questions under oath, either in depositions (in-person answers) or interrogatories (written answers). They would also be compelled to turn over relevant electronic evidence. It’s clear that Taylor preserved texts from Brown as her complaint includes an image of two texts. Brown may also have texts or emails that corroborate the kind of defense Heitner suggests in his statement: deny the claims and paint Taylor as acting in unethical manner.
One risk for Brown should he countersue Taylor is that the countersuit would open the door to additional discovery. It’s unclear whether such discovery would be in Brown’s favor.
As mentioned above, Taylor’s complaint refers to another football player as present in the house when she claims Brown raped her. This player would be a key witness.
Not a criminal matter—at least this time, at least
Taylor’s complaint does not indicate that she approached law enforcement. She mentions seeking advice from a former sex crimes prosecutor from New York. This former prosecutor is now a leader at Taylor’s church. The complaint doesn’t suggest that Taylor alerted persons who are currently prosecutors or police officers in Miami.
The complaint could lead the Miami Police Department to investigate, particularly if pretrial discovery reveals evidence and testimony that corroborates Taylor’s account. The alleged rape occurred last year, which is well within Florida’s statute of limitations for a sexual assault. The crime of sexual battery in Florida carries a potential 30-year prison sentence.
Obviously, the possibility of a criminal charge does not mean a charge is likely. Police would not seek a charge unless there was probable cause of a crime. Further, while Brown would lose a lawsuit if the preponderance of the evidence weighs in favor of Taylor, he would only be convicted of a crime if a jury believed beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty.
If law enforcement is unsure as to what happened, they would not seek a charge of Brown. It appears the only other person near the alleged rape was the unnamed football player. It’s unclear how much he had to drink or his health situation at that time of the incident.
The NFL and Patriots will likely take a “wait and see” approach, with commissioner’s exempt list a possibility
The NFL and Patriots will both take the rape accusation as a serious matter. At the same time, neither likely knows more than two basic facts: Taylor claims that Brown raped her and Brown, through his attorney, claims that the sexual encounter was consensual.
The NFL and Patriots will also place significance in the fact that the accusation against Brown was made through a civil lawsuit, with its lower burden of persuasion (discussed above), than in a much more troubling criminal charge. The fact that this is a civil matter does not nullify its importance, but a civil lawsuit should not be regarded as the equivalent of a criminal charge. In a worst-case scenario, a civil lawsuit leads the losing side to pay the winning side money. In contrast, a criminal prosecution can lead to a defendant losing his freedom.
As midnight neared on Tuesday, the Patriots released a statement indicating that the team is aware of the allegations contained in Taylor’s complaint and the rebuttal by Heitner. The team notes that the league is investigating. The Patriots say they will not comment further.
Meanwhile, the NFL and NFLPA have not negotiated the kind of carefully designed, joint domestic violence and sexual assault policy that the NBA and NBPA feature whereby an NBA player can be placed on paid leave while accused of an act of domestic violence or sexual assault. An NBA player in such a situation can also work with a policy committee comprised of experts who propose a treatment and accountability plan. The closest to a paid leave suspension for an NFL player accused of sexual assault would be the commissioner’s exempt list. Under it, commissioner Roger Goodell can decide, at his discretion, to render Brown ineligible pending the league investigation. Goodell does not need to reach any definitive conclusions about Brown in order to place him on the list. Goodell can place Brown on it for an undefined “limited and temporary” basis while an investigation takes place. Brown would be paid while on the list and could remain on it for weeks or possibly longer.
Goodell used the exempt list to sideline Adrian Peterson in 2014, though Peterson had been charged with a child endangerment crime—here, Brown has been sued civilly but not charged. The league’s policy for the commissioner’s list notes that it can be used in response to a formal criminal matter (not applicable to Brown) or when the league’s investigation finds that a player may have engaged in an unlawfully violent act against another person (potentially applicable to Brown).
Goodell has complete discretion. Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, he can decide when a player’s conduct is detrimental to the NFL and when it warrants a fine or suspension. A player doesn’t need to be accused in a criminal charge, civil lawsuit or even a social media posting for Goodell to decide to punish. There is no minimal threshold. Goodell can decide as he likes, based on his interpretation of evidence.
That said, under the league’s interpretation of Article 46 for domestic violence and sexual assault maters, there is a baseline suspension of six games. However, an accusation does not trigger the suspension. Goodell and the league will consider the evidence and reach a determination. Goodell recently declined to suspend Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill despite Hill warning his former fiancée, Crystal Espinal, “you need to be afraid of me too, b----”. Goodell, however, suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for domestic violence related conduct despite Elliott’s denials and questions about the evidence. Indeed, Elliott was not charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one.
Based on prior league investigations into matters concerning potential violence against women, expect the league investigation to take months, if not longer. Brown will be obligated under his contract and the CBA to cooperate; Taylor, who has no contractual relationship with the NFL or its teams, has no obligation to comply with an interview request.
We will keep you posted on major developments in the Brown matter.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.