Tom Brady spoke compassionately about Antonio Brown on Sunday after the wide receiver removed his pads, shirt and gloves, flinging the latter two into the stands, before finding his own way to the airport.
Brady’s words, suggesting that people should “do what they can to help [Brown] in the ways he really needs it,” pressed the pause button on what was initially a cascade of media schadenfreude, resulting from weeks of criticism over the Buccaneers’ having Brown on the roster in the first place. The team signed Brown in 2020 while he was facing a civil case for sexual assault (which was later settled out of court after Brown helped the team win a Super Bowl). They kept him after his recent three-game suspension for forging his COVID-19 vaccine card. All the while, they pointed to his progress as a human being, alluding to their attempts to curb the receiver’s mercurial behavior.
Brady had allowed Brown to stay at his Tampa-area home. He introduced Brown to Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker whose work aims to help people develop a more positive mindset. He covered for Brown in many instances, to the point where it seemed odd that the greatest player in NFL history would risk his legacy by association.
It was easy for many of us to become cynical, given what was at stake for Brady and the Buccaneers’ organization in 2020. Their offense was markedly better with Brown in the lineup. So we were always left to wonder whether Brady—and, by proxy, an entire club that signed up for this ride—was in it to truly rehabilitate Brown and enjoy whatever mutual on-field benefits came of it, or whether this was a cold and calculated decision to endure a roller-coaster ride and bail when the public pressure became too much. Ultimately, it would seem Brady’s efforts were genuine, given what we saw after Sunday’s game. His concern was visible, a welcome divergence from the chorus of terse, tough-guy platitudes that accompanied Brown’s release from Bruce Arians and whichever anonymous team source texted one national reporter simply, “He gone.”
Regardless of what is true, Sunday brought about an uneasy feeling—one that is unfortunately familiar in the NFL. Players, coaches, scouts and executives are a microcosm of society and, thus, suffer from the same kinds of issues that nip at all of us. Be it mental health, addiction, anger, insecurity, fear or violence, we all greet each day as imperfect beings to a varying degree. NFL players just happen to do it in a bubble, for all of us to see and often criticize. For a lot of us, a saving grace comes in the form of counseling, therapy, medical intervention, time spent with family or in the presence of a community of supportive individuals. But it may be time we stop counting an NFL locker room as one of those places.
For such a long time, we have heard coaches and executives couch the signing of a troubled player as a chance to give that person a better future. And while this is undoubtedly something they believe, the truth is that just thrusting someone grappling with any issue (including sometimes just a tough day or an argument at home) into the disciplined grind of an NFL season isn’t going to correct or ease whatever underlying issues exist. We have seen many NFL players, from Calvin Ridley to Lane Johnson, step away from the field to address their mental health instead of remaining in the powder keg of emotion, expectation and pressure, hoping that their work would eventually provide a solution.
It would be unfair for us to diagnose Brown with anything from a distance, so we’re not. Nor are we criticizing Brady for his attempts to help. And we don’t know the extent of the quarterback’s methods, his outreach or his resources. But it became clear on Sunday that football was not the solution to whatever has sparked a series of bizarre and troubling incidents associated with Brown dating back to his unceremonious exit from the Steelers.
After Brown left the field Sunday, he was quickly dismissed from the team. Arians simply said that Brown was no longer part of the organization and wouldn’t address it further. Brown was given a roster spot after using a fake vaccine card (a felony) and incurring sexual assault charges. But not after an incident that appeared to raise genuine concern from his teammate.
Just one week ago, Arians told NBC Sports that he “saw [Brown] trying to be a better human being.” If that were true, if Arians had a front-row seat to the journey and ostensibly an understanding that recovery from any issue is not a steady ascent but a process of steps both forward and backward, then he shouldn’t be allowed to just cut bait when the behavior comes back to embarrass him publicly.
Therein lies the issue with using professional sports as a redemptive or healing vehicle. Certainly structure and routine can help. Many of us have had coaches, bosses or other authority figures who have changed our lives for the better. Many of us enjoy the distraction from an involved hobby or job. The problem is when we view it as a complete panacea. The supposed support mechanism Brown had in Tampa is now gone, although Brown’s longtime teammate Le’Veon Bell said after the game that the first thing he did in the locker room was text the receiver to check in on him. With Brady’s opening the door publicly to the fact that Brown needs help, the question becomes where Tampa Bay’s responsibility, or the NFL’s in general, lies in providing such assistance, given that they vouched for him in the first place when so many wondered whether it was the right idea.
This is not a piece excusing Brown’s litany of irresponsible behavior. Sports Illustrated has produced the most comprehensive work on his troubled past, including allegations of forcible rape and unwelcome sexual advances. Brown faked his vaccination status and was then in regular contact with a coach who has had cancer three times and an 83-year-old consultant, Tom Moore. This is, instead, a plea for teams to realize that sometimes they cannot someone help through structure and discipline alone. Even if being in a locker room helps for some time, there are always the hours between practices away from the facility. There is always life after retirement. This is also not a piece blaming anyone in particular for their inability to help Brown.
So, while it may simply be true that Brown “quit” on his teammates, or simply decided to act in a way that has been consistent with recent behavior, while this may just be another instance for many to finger-wag at, it could also be a cry for help. Brady suggested as much. Bell’s urgency to check on his friend suggested as much. It is help that obviously football could not provide, and we should stop pretending it can.