How Might the NFL Handle the Accusations of Domestic Violence Against Trent Brown?

The Raiders offensive lineman has not yet been charged with a crime—only sued—and at this moment, there is no reason to believe that he will be charged. Will the NFL do a deeper investigation?
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Trent Brown

Trent Brown signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Raiders this offseason.

In the latest domestic violence controversy for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to address, Oakland Raiders offensive tackle Trent Brown is accused of battering a former partner. The claims are alleged by Atlanta resident Diorra Marzette-Sanders and are detailed in a lawsuit, which was first reported by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.

Sports Illustrated has obtained a copy of the lawsuit’s complaint, which was filed in a Superior Court in Alameda County, California, on Oct. 15.

The complaint demands a jury trial and asserts nine claims, including those for assault, battery, breach of non-material partnership agreement and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint was authored by Marzette-Sanders’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, a well-known trial attorney in San Francisco. A few years ago, McCoy represented a woman that had sued NBA point guard Derrick Rose for sexual battery and other claims (Rose defeated those claims in a trial).

A complaint is not a criminal charge—and why that matters here

Marzette-Sanders and her legal counsel re-tell the facts in the complaint from Marzette-Sanders’s vantage point, making it not a neutral narration and instead a depiction that advocates a perspective most favorable to Marzette-Sanders. A complaint can contain exaggerations or distortions, and sometimes complaints are filed in hopes of extracting a financial settlement rather than actually going to trial. Whether the allegations brought on behalf of Marzette-Sanders are proven in court remains to be seen.

Likewise, a civil complaint is not a sworn statement by the complainant—it is authored by an attorney—and it’s unclear if Marzette-Sanders has provided sworn testimony or will provide sworn testimony about her allegations against Brown. Such testimony would be more reliable than assertions by an attorney since she would be at risk being charged with perjury, a felony crime, if she knowingly lies. A criminal charge, in contrast, contains assertions made by law enforcement in a sworn affidavit.

A civil complaint also has a much lower bar to pass than a criminal charge. A civil complaint must eventually be proven by a preponderance of evidence, meaning more likely than not. A criminal charge requires probable cause and a conviction on the charge necessitates a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

As an initial response on Wednesday, Brown tweeted a categorical denial. He also insists that his name will be cleared in court:

In the weeks ahead, Brown’s attorneys will answer Marzette-Sanders’s complaint and formally deny her accusations. Brown’s attorneys might also raise other facts or assertions that attempt to debunk Marzette-Sanders’s arguments and draw doubts about her motivations and credibility.

Unpacking the relationship between Brown and the woman accusing him

For now, the only story that we know is told from the perspective of McCoy, the attorney for Marzette-Sanders. In the complaint, McCoy details how Marzette-Sanders and Brown began corresponding in December 2016 through Instagram. At the time, Brown was a second-year player for the San Francisco 49ers. A year earlier, the 49ers had drafted the massive 6' 8", 360-pound tackle out of the University of Florida.

In March 2017, the two began to “exclusively date.” By the end of that year, Marzette-Sanders and Brown had decided “to be with each other for the rest of their lives and start a family.” This agreement, McCoy writes, contemplated Brown playing in the NFL and financially supporting Marzette-Sanders. She would, in turn, “take care of their future children, maintain the household and physically and emotionally support” Brown.

McCoy highlights how Brown spent a considerable amount of money on items for Marzette-Sanders. Those items included Mercedes-Benz and Ford Explorer cars that were listed under both of their names, as well as jewelry and flights. In 2018, the couple moved to Georgia, which is Brown’s home state. They thought Georgia “would be a good location to start a family.”

2018 was also eventful for the couple since in April of that year the 49ers traded Brown to the New England Patriots. The couple continued to maintain a primary residence in Georgia, though Brown obtained a place to stay while in Massachusetts.

In mid-2018, Marzette-Sanders and Brown conceived their first child. This was, as McCoy writes, “pursuant to their agreement.” Marzette-Sanders gave birth to the child, a boy, in Jan. 2019. It was around that time when the couple decided to move again, this time to Bastrop County, Texas. In that location, Brown’s mother would help to raise the couple’s newborn son.

Brown would win Super Bowl LIII with the Patriots in February 2019. A month later he became a free agent and signed a 4-year, $66 million-dollar deal with the Raiders. The couple began to look for homes and apartments in the Bay Area while Marzette-Sanders applied for jobs in Oakland.

A history of alleged violence

In June 2019, the couple had what McCoy terms a “huge argument” in their home in Texas. The argument became so hostile that Marzette-Sanders’s mother called the police. The mother feared the safety of her daughter and grandchildren. After this argument, McCoy says that Brown “kicked out” Marzette-Sanders from their home and also refused to financially support her.

According to McCoy, the June 2019 argument in Texas was not the couple’s first. The complaint details what it calls a “history of domestic violence” that reflected a gruesome “pattern and practice” of Brown inflicting violence on his partner. This alleged pattern began in 2018, when Brown allegedly “slapped Marzette-Sanders across the face leaving her mouth bloody and bruised.” The pattern would continue with an incident months later in Texas when Brown, according to McCoy, “jumped at Marzette-Sanders, grabbed her face and covered her mouth while choking her out until she couldn’t breathe.” When the couple travelled to Hawaii for vacation earlier this year, Brown allegedly “grabbed her arm, took her into a room, locked the door, slapped her across the face and punched her in the ribs.”

McCoy also claims that when Marzette-Sanders threatened to leave her abusive relationship and take the couple’s son with her, Brown ominously warned her, “I’ll shoot yo ass in the f------- head before you walk out that door with my son.”

The alleged verbal abuse also featured demeaning remarks by Brown that incorporated the “n-word.” McCoy retells an incident from this past June when Marzette-Sanders cooked Brown breakfast. Brown finished eating and got up from the table. He then turned off the lights. Marzette-Sanders, who was still eating, asked him why he would do that. He responded, “bitch you don’t pay the bills in this house, so you can use the window blinds.” Brown is also accused of saying “a real bitch pays bills at her house for her [n-word]” and insultingly telling her, “bitch, since you don’t pay the bills you can’t make decisions . . [make sure to] follow instructions or you won’t be homeless.”

As mentioned above, the complaint references a call to the police in Texas. A police report was allegedly filed in June 2019. This arose after Brown allegedly grabbed Marzette-Sanders in the arm and slapped her in the face. The complaint asserts that the police visited their residence. It does not appear that an arrest was made. Brown, for that matter, does not appear to have an arrest record.

It is unclear if Marzette-Sanders sought medical treatment or other support services after any of the alleged incidents.

The legal claims

The complaint demands a jury trial and unspecified financial damages. The claims include assault and battery, which refer to Brown allegedly hitting and otherwise hurting Marzette-Sanders, without her consent. McCoy insists that the pattern of abuse reflects “malicious, oppressive and despicable” conduct that was “in conscious disregard” of Marzette-Sanders’s health and well-being. For that reason, McCoy contends that punitive damages—damages designed to punish a defendant for particularly egregious conduct—are warranted. These damages would be in addition to compensatory damages, which refer to damages to make the plaintiff whole again, such as money to pay for pain and suffering and lost wages.

The complaint also references the fact that while Marzette-Sanders and Brown lived with one another and had a child together, they were not married. Noticeably, Brown’s tweet calls Marzette-Sanders an “ex-girlfriend.” McCoy insists that the couple had a non-marital agreement that contemplated the couple pooling their assets and Brown financially supporting Marzette-Sanders and their family “for the rest of their lives.” This alleged agreement included an obligation on the part of Brown to “share everything equally, as between co-habitating partners.” McCoy emphasizes that Marzette-Sanders gave up “the life she had in Oakland” and also took “all housekeeping and child-rearing chores” while “physically and emotionally supporting” Brown and his NFL career.

To that end, McCoy stresses that Marzette-Sanders is protected by the California Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Marvin v. Marvin, which held that adults in California who voluntarily live together in a sexual relationship can contract to share assets and money for the rest of their life even if they never marry.

Obviously, we don’t yet know if Brown and his attorneys will agree with McCoy’s claim that Brown and Marzette-Sanders agreed to a lifetime contract. It appears from McCoy’s description that the “contract” was an oral one, rather than one in writing. Evidence and testimony would prove crucial to determining if this assertion can be supported.

The complaint also charges that Brown intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Marzette-Sanders. He allegedly did so through a combination of “outrageous conduct, including the offensive touching” and “constantly degrading plaintiff, calling her a ‘bitch’ and ‘dumbass’ in the presence of others, and saying that she was worthless for not being able to pay bills.”

The complaint also includes photographs of Marzette-Sanders with bruises that the complaint asserts were caused by Brown.

How the NFL will address the situation

The NFL once again finds itself in a situation where a player is accused of horrific acts but the league has a limited capacity to assess whether the accusations are true or false.

This same situation played out last month with Antonio Brown, who a day after signing with the New England Patriots was sued by a woman, Britney Taylor. Taylor claims that Brown raped her and committed other unlawful acts against her. Brown has also been accused of other inappropriate and violent acts, as uncovered by the reporting of Robert Klemko. Yet Antonio Brown has not been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. In a “worse case” scenario for Brown, the civil claims will lead to Brown having to pay money. He remains a free agent after the Patriots cut him.

Under league rules, the NFL could eventually place Trent Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list and/or suspend him for six or more games. The exempt list is used to separate a player from a team while the league investigates a serious allegation that has been brought against the player. If he is placed on the exempt list, Brown would be prohibited from playing in Raiders games or practicing with his teammates. He would, however, continue to be paid and would be able to join team meetings. He could also work out on his own at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and in other facilities.

The exempt list is a feature of the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell can elect to place a player on the list in one of two scenarios. The first is not relevant to Trent Brown. It involves a situation where a player is charged with a crime of violence. Brown has been sued, not charged. There is no reason at this time to believe he will be charged with a crime.

The second scenario is potentially applicable to Brown. It is when Goodell believes that a player “may have” engaged in a crime of violence. Note that a player does not have to be charged with a crime in order for Goodell to conclude that a player “may have” committed a crime. Goodell is the decider, not law enforcement. While a citizen can’t be charged with a crime unless there is probable cause, Goodell need not find probable cause to justify placing a player on the exempt list. As is always the case, the fine details of rule can play a major role in when and how that rule can be applied.

According to the language of the policy, Goodell can only reach a determination to place a player on the exempt list after an “investigation” has been conducted. The nature and quality of such an investigation is not detailed, but a sensible one would involve an interview with the accuser. In the Antonio Brown situation, Taylor met with NFL investigators. The league did not place Brown on the exempt list after the meeting with Taylor, though the exempt list became unnecessary a few days later when the Patriots abruptly cut Brown. No team has signed him since. There is thus no immediate need to exempt Brown since he isn’t playing in any games. He can’t be separated from a team since he has no team. If the league were to take action against Brown, it would more likely be in the form of a suspension that would go into effect when and if the 31-year-old wide receiver signs with another team.

Back to Trent Brown—it’s unclear at this time whether the league has invited Marzette-Sanders to meet or if she would accept an invitation to do so. It should be noted that even if Marzette-Sanders meets with NFL investigators, her claims during the meeting would not be made while under oath. This does not mean she would lie or exaggerate, but it does mean that the consequences for doing so would not be nearly as dire as when doing so while under oath.

It could take weeks or months for the NFL to investigate Brown. Separate meetings with Marzette-Sanders and Brown would be helpful. The league is a private entity and thus has no subpoena power but it could ask Marzette-Sanders and Brown to provide any relevant texts, emails, direct messages, screenshots and other communications or health records that shed light on the situation. The league has some suasion over Brown, who as an NFL player is contractually obligated to cooperate with league investigations; the league has no such authority over Marzette-Sanders.

The league might also reach out to the mothers of both Brown and Marzette-Sanders since they are mentioned in the complaint as potential witnesses. Obviously, a parent is not a neutral voice on whether their child acted rightly or wrongly in their marriage. It’s also possible that the league will ask coaches and players on the teams with whom Brown has played (the 49ers for four seasons, the Patriots for one season and the Raiders for less than a season) about whether they saw Brown interact with Marzette-Sanders or if he ever exhibited inappropriate conduct around women.

Also, unlike in the Antonio Brown situation, there appears to be law enforcement records related to Trent Brown and Marzette-Sanders. McCoy refers to police in Texas being called in June 2019 and investigating an alleged incident in the home cohabitated by Brown and Marzette-Sanders. The incident report might contain information, including written impressions by the officers who investigated.

If Goodell exempts Brown, the NFLPA could challenge it by filing a grievance under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement. The grievance would likely fail. For one, Goodell would decide which person serves as the arbitrator. He could select himself. For another, a federal court would be unlikely to vacate the arbitrator’s decision. Court challenges that have been brought by players—including Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott—who were suspended under Article 46 all failed. As multiple federal judges have observed, Article 46 is worded to protect the discretion of Goodell on player disciplinary matters from meaningful judicial review.

The Raiders, meanwhile, will likely decline to take any immediate action. The team knows that the NFL will investigate and potentially exempt or suspend Brown. As evidenced by the four-year, $66 million contract they extended to Brown, the Raiders clearly envision Brown as a key member of the franchise for years to come.

Of course, not all teams wait for a league investigation to play out. The Patriots swiftly cut Antonio Brown in the wake of multiple, but unproven, allegations. Whether the Patriots acted too hastily is debatable (and part of a grievance filed by Brown), but the franchise elected its discretion. Perhaps the Raiders will do the same with Trent Brown. He is, like Antonio Brown, accused of appalling acts.

We’ll keep you posted.

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.

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