There will be only 25,000 fans in the Raymond James Stadium for the Super Bowl, so if you listen closely, you might be able to hear Antonio Brown applauding himself. Antonio would like you to know he has been through a lot, O.K.? He has dealt with media criticism (for multiple accounts of sexual assault, including rape, and sexual misconduct, and his attempts to intimidate someone who came forward.) That was rough for Antonio!
And then there were the haters (who pointed out that, along with the assault accounts, he was sued for throwing furniture off of a 14th-floor condo balcony and nearly striking a 22-month-old and grandfather walking on the street below—he reached an undisclosed settlement with the family). So hateful! And of course, there were the teams that gave up on him, like the Steelers (who traded him after he tried to set the organization on fire) and the Raiders (who cut him after he tried to set that organization on fire) and the Patriots (who tried to sign him on the cheap and then cut him because he harassed a woman who came forward.) How rude of them!
The Steelers, Raiders and Patriots are not playing in this Super Bowl, but Brown is, for the Buccaneers. And for that, Antonio Brown is “grateful.”
He said that word, grateful, a lot Wednesday during his Super Bowl Zoom availability: “I’m just extremely grateful to be here with my teammates, preparing … extremely grateful … it’s a blessing to be here … super grateful.” This would be a wonderful attitude from somebody who overcame cancer or had to play in the Canadian Football League for five years before finally getting his NFL chance. It had a different feel from Brown.
Brown is entitled to defend himself. But he seems to think he is a victim, and he isn’t. His list of transgressions is long. If Brown has learned anything over the past few years, he is keeping it from the rest of us. If he realizes his own failings, he still won’t admit to any of them.
“I’d be doing a disservice if I talked about things that are not a focus of this game,” he said Wednesday.
There is a time and a place for that kind of answer—like a few years ago, when rival corners Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman both made it to the Super Bowl, and Revis made it clear he did not want the whole week to be a word fight between the two of them. But Brown’s words were both appalling and laughable coming from a guy who once livestreamed a Steelers’ post-playoff game speech in the locker room. He basically boycotted Raiders’ training camp because he wanted to use an outdated helmet and got into confrontations with a Raiders coach and general manager. And those things are far less troubling than the accounts of serious personal misconduct.
There is literally nobody on either team who would think Brown was doing a “disservice” by saying he was sorry for past behavior, or that his problems were of his own making.
Brown did say he has worked on controlling his emotions. And he did say, a year ago, that “I think I owe the whole NFL an apology [for my past behavior]. I could have done a lot of things better.” He said then that he was “the problem child, the guy who gets in trouble,” and that bothered him.
He could have said that again Wednesday. He could even have expounded on those vague, narrow apologies that seem to address only his actions in the locker room. Instead, he left the lingering suspicion that he said all that a year ago only because he was looking for a job—and now he has one, so never mind.
“I’ve been through some things, but that’s life,” Brown said Wednesday. “We all have a story. We all have to allow ourselves to grow for the betterment of ourselves. I’m just grateful for the journey.”
Brown was not banned from the NFL or blacklisted permanently, as it once appeared he would be. He was not signed by anyone after being released by the Patriots in September 2019, as an NFL investigation was ongoing; he served an eight-game suspension to start 2020, connected to a no-contest plea to burglary and battery charges from a January incident, and the harassment of a woman who came forward with a sexual misconduct claim. But that was not related to the sexual assault accounts, for which he still faces a civil suit (a trial is currently scheduled for December). He found a franchise willing to take a relatively small risk on a Hall of Fame talent, thanks in part to a star quarterback (Tom Brady) who had befriended him and wanted him on the team.
But by refusing to admit he did anything wrong, let alone show any contrition, Brown looked and sounded like a guy who thinks he has been persecuted. Maybe that was just the façade he put up Wednesday. But if that’s how he truly feels, there will be more ugly chapters. If he thinks he doesn’t have to change, he will cause more damage.
He framed everything in football terms. He said he has learned “this game can be taken away at any moment,” as though that is the big lesson here. We can only imagine Roger Goodell’s reaction to this quote from Brown, after he was asked about Goodell and said he has not talked to the commissioner lately: “I think [the league] did a good job of the process of helping me get to this point. I was super grateful to have the opportunity to restart my career again.”
If Brown thinks Goodell’s goal was to help Brown restart his career, that would be news to Goodell.
“I want my legacy to be a guy that was persistent, a guy that never gave up, no matter the odds, no matter the hate,” Brown said. “A sixth-round kid from Central Michigan that never gave up. A guy who had the will of a champion.”
He was indeed a sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan, and it’s true that he never gave up, and he might soon be a champion. But life after football is coming, sooner than Brown thinks. He ducked questions Wednesday. That doesn’t mean they are going away.