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Antonio Brown's Three-Game Suspension Is a Nervous White Flag From the NFL

The league had a chance to make clear it cares about health and safety. Instead, it opted for a cowardly response.

The NFL decided Thursday that three games was an appropriate punishment for a trio of players who submitted fake vaccination cards in order to avoid the stricter protocols placed on non-vaccinated players.

To call this a slap on the wrist would be an insult to wrist-slapping, which feels like a guillotine in comparison. Regardless of how one feels about vaccine mandates or restrictions, Brown, current teammate Mike Edwards and former teammate John Franklin III wanted to be in the facility, freely roaming, eating, lifting and sauna-lounging with everyone else, unmasked alongside a pair of coaches ranging from their late 60s to early 80s. Head coach Bruce Arians has had three different bouts with cancer, leaving him uniquely immunocompromised.

In case you were wondering, this is a felony offense in certain states as the falsifying of the document would have to include the forging of government seals. (In a statement sent to various media members, Brown's lawyer said that Brown is currently vaccinated; a source confirmed to SI's Albert Breer that the NFL verified during its investigation that Brown, Edwards and Franklin are now vaccinated.)

On a personal level, this kind of callousness is the epitome of destructive, selfish behavior. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, while creatively trying to tiptoe around a public revelation of his vaccination status to avoid, as he might put it, a war with “cancel culture”, reportedly adhered to most protocols behind the scenes, including the wearing of a mask inside the facility. Brown and his teammates obtained fraudulent documents so that they could present themselves as vaccinated, thus preventing them from what must have seemed like an unbearable mark of oppression: a piece of cloth over their nose and mouth, so that they may help curb the spread of a virus that has killed millions of people worldwide.

Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) during the first quarter against the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium

It is strange that the league opted to handhold Brown in particular. Here is a player who was already banned by the league for eight games for a swath of intolerable behavior. A sexual assault allegation was settled out of court. Sports Illustrated reported on a second instance of unwanted sexual behavior, to which Brown responded by threatening the woman via text message. On the field, Brown has forced his way off a pair of franchises and been kicked off a third. He photographed and posted internal team documents, recorded locker room conversations and phone calls with coaches.

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Brown should be banned from the NFL for life, not given a mandatory rest period to get his body healed in time for another Super Bowl run. What a proud moment for the NFL that will be. Television broadcasters already struggled to tiptoe around Brown’s sexual assault allegations while calling a game. Let’s add forging government documents into the mix and bundle it into yet another redemptive arc.

A three-game suspension feels like a nervous white flag from a league office that may actually have no idea how many of their players' vaccine cards are real. It feels like a group of people who regret Vince McMahon power walking through last season after catching some of their most obvious violators, and spiking the football in celebration. If Brown could procure a card through the services of his personal chef, as was alleged by the chef in a Tampa Bay Times report, how do we know that other players across the league didn’t do the same? How do we know that the individual burden carried by each team to legitimize these documents wasn’t too much for a crunched organization already dealing with a litany of other pandemic protocols? What is the NFL’s interest level in going back through all these index cards and verifying them?

In Brown, the NFL had the chance to make it clear to players and coaches that they cared about their health and safety. He, Edwards and Franklin violated rules and the trust of their team, sidling up to teammates and coaches under the guise that they were all protected in this together, when in reality, they could have been carrying an unblunted case of a virus strong enough to shut the world down. Maybe a trainer, or coach, or quality control assistant on the team also cares for an immunocompromised family member. Maybe their wives were pregnant or had just given birth, or their husbands were battling respiratory illnesses. Maybe one of their teammates got COVID-19 and felt as helpless as many of us who contracted the virus and—despite being young, healthy individuals—had the living daylights scared out of us over a handful of days in bed.

Instead, the league opted for the minimization of damage. It is eternally stunning they did not wait until Christmas Eve Friday to dump the information. They fell in line with the NHL, who had an equally meek response to winger Evander Kane when he was caught with a fake card. It reveals what ultimately seems to be the truth about most of the NFL’s forays into justice: They care enough to make it look like they care. If they have to go beyond that, maybe they’ll slap some wrists. Maybe.  

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