A Hard-Headed Debate Over Antonio Brown’s Strange Offseason

Antonio Brown (No. 84) of the Oakland Raiders warms up prior to an NFL preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on August 15, 2019, in Glendale, Arizona.

Source Norm Hall/Getty

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Because the Raiders need Brown to succeed.

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We’re talkin’ ’bout helmets?

Capping a bizarre offseason for the ages, Antonio Brown has the sports world channeling its inner Allen Iverson, asking themselves why helmets — or Brown’s unwillingness to wear the helmet the NFL is mandating he dons — continue to dominate the headlines, just a week after we were all talking about the temperature settings in cryogenic chambers.

Brown, who with six 100-plus reception seasons in nine years is arguably the league’s best wide receiver, continues to fight the NFL policy that requires “helmet certification” according to industry standards. The 31-year-old seven-time Pro Bowler lost a grievance against the NFL in which he sought an exception to wear his Schutt Air Advantage, a helmet he has worn throughout his career that was available on the market between 2002 and 2009. (NBC Sports reported Monday night that Brown was preparing to file a new grievance against the NFL asking for a one-year grace period.)

“I thought he did a great job after he lost the hearing because he put out a statement basically saying that he accepted [the ruling] and that he’d move on,” says Rob Parker, a Fox Sports TV and radio personality. “I praised him for that. He didn’t make a stink after he lost, but people made a stink that he was even appealing it. That’s a part of the collective bargaining agreement, so why would people be mad?”

But Parker drew a hard line when Brown accused the NFL of racism in an August 17 tweet.

“That N-word … ,” Parker says, slowing his cadence, “there’s no excuse for that; I can’t even justify that [and] act like I’m trying to figure out what he’s doing. [That’s] inexcusable — period. It just shouldn’t happen; it’s the worst.”

Says one African American NFL executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity: “That’s not a good look for him. He’s one of us, and people judge us by our peers and say all of us are like that, and that’s not true. That’s what I hate about it more than anything.”

 

The Miami native played college ball at Central Michigan and was an NFL afterthought when he was drafted in the sixth round in 2010. Brown flourished during nine seasons in Pittsburgh, emerging as Ben Roethlisberger’s main target for one of the league’s best teams year after year. But an increasingly frosty relationship with the team led to his trade to Oakland this offseason — for a veritable pittance of third- and fifth-round draft picks. Then the cold stopped being a metaphor.

Players are making their points loud and clear: We have a voice, and we ain’t afraid to use it. 

Brown reportedly went into a cryogenic chamber without proper foot protection — resulting in frostbite in both feet, causing him to miss large chunks of training camp (and gross out HBO viewers by showing off his tootsies on Hard Knocks). After that came the helmet saga. And now Brown continues to dig his spikes in, threatening to sit out the season if his helmet wish isn’t granted.

Despite Brown’s strong suggestion that the league is prejudiced against Black players, he’s not the only one with a helmet beef; other players, including White superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, also expressed their desire to wear their old helmets, only to relent to the new rule. More about player safety than comfort in an age when brain damage is an increasing concern for football players, the regulations prevent a player from wearing a helmet that’s more than 10 years old.

“It does make it seem like there’s something else going on there,” says Domonique Foxworth, who played for seven years in the NFL and now writes for ESPN’s The Undefeated.

It’s not just Brown trying to use his leverage in new ways. 

NFL fans, for years, have cried foul about the preseason — lamenting that the meaningless games are just a money grab for owners. Those types of headlines are so yesterday. This preseason, it’s been all about Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout; Packers star Rodgers’ willingly sitting out preseason games; and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills’ criticism of his team’s owner, Stephen Ross, on his plan to host a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. 

Players are making their points loud and clear: We have a voice, and we ain’t afraid to use it.

In Brown’s case, that voice has long been a quixotic one. Foxworth contends that this odd offseason “will all be a footnote” in the longer arc of an unlikely career that could well send Brown to the Hall of Fame one day. But his new employers are growing impatient. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock dropped what had to feel like an ultimatum to Brown on Sunday, saying “It’s time for him to be all-in or all-out.”

There was a Brown sighting at Raiders camp on Monday morning, so perhaps he is starting to pivot.

But the way this looks, we just might be talking helmets for a bit longer.

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