Antonio Brown needs to tackle his own problems. He’s the only one left who can do it.
The NFL’s most perplexing personality continues to evade responsibility for his mistakes, just like he leaves defenders grasping at air. Brown’s latest lapse, an altercation with the Oakland Raiders’ general manager, was another example of him blaming others for his errors instead of owning them.
Brown missed much of the Raiders’ training camp with strangely frostbitten feet and bizarre helmet grievances. On Wednesday, he posted a bitter Instagram message complaining about being fined for his absences, which led to him screaming at general manager Mike Mayock, being physically restrained while threatening to punch his boss in the face, and calling him a “cracker.”
Brown avoided a suspension by giving an emotional apology at a team meeting Friday, but in the past, similar mea culpas have turned into pointed fingers. Now the NFL universe is wondering what comes next for the 31-year-old diva. Can Brown truly accept the fact that he deserved to be punished for his behavior? Or will he revert to his history of implausible deniability, which threatens to sink a Hall of Fame career?
During his nine years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brown occasionally admitted his mistakes. After quarterback Ben Roethlisberger criticized Brown for a sideline tantrum in 2017, Brown said, “I’m glad he did what he did. He called me out.” But as Brown hijacked the Steelers in 2018 and then parachuted into Oakland, he has been increasingly defiant and irrational.
Here’s the path Brown followed to this point:
In 2016, as Brown’s touchdowns became occasions for twerking and other cartoonish celebrations, he earned the title of the best receiver in football. That also was the season when he broadcast his infamous Facebook Live video from the Steelers’ locker room after a playoff victory, violating the team’s inner sanctum and exposing head coach Mike Tomlin using embarrassing language. The following week, after the video brouhaha contributed to Pittsburgh’s loss in the AFC Championship Game, Brown refused to talk to the media.
Tomlin called Brown out over the video. Like Roethlisberger, he was doing his best to hold his star receiver accountable. The subtext was “grow up.” It seemed to be working, as Brown issued what sounded like a public relations-scripted apology — while his agent negotiated with the Steelers for a new contract.
Two weeks after the season ended, in a TV interview at the 2017 Super Bowl, Brown was less contrite when confronted by Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless about the touchdown antics that saddled his team with 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. “Everyone wants to celebrate your faults. They want to maximize your failures,” Brown said.
Later in that interview, he denied the fact that he refused to talk to the media after the playoff loss. Sharpe tried to box Brown in like a cornerback cutting off a sideline angle, but Brown broke free with a stutter-step of rationalizations. “I can’t come do an interview sweaty all up,” Brown claimed, flashing a smile.
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Shortly after that interview, Brown signed a new deal, including a $17 million signing bonus, that made him the highest-paid receiver in football. The apologies dried up after that.
No remorse for calling a white journalist a racist after he reported that Brown was limping. Or for yelling at his offensive coordinator during a game and then skipping practice the next day. Or for allegedly tossing furniture from his high-rise Miami apartment, driving 100 mph through a 45 mph zone or responding to the NFL’s new helmet rules like a teenager whose parents took away his phone.
In September 2018, I reported that Brown’s prolific Instagram posts masked a disturbing pattern of turmoil off the field. Brown responded by tweeting at me: “wait to I see you bro we gone see what that jaw like.” He later issued an apologetic statement through the Steelers. He did not post that statement on social media, which is where Brown expresses his truest thoughts.
Through it all, Brown continued to produce on the field. The former sixth-round draft pick has always used an underdog, me-against-the-world mentality to fuel the otherworldly work ethic that made him a star. Denial can be a superpower when you’re a 5-foot-10 receiver coming out of Central Michigan University who ran a 4.56-second 40 at the NFL combine.
But now that he’s top dog, Brown has fallen into an alternate reality where doubters and enemies lurk around every corner. “When your own team want to hate but there’s no stopping me now devil is a lie. Everyone got to pay this year so we clear,” Brown typed on Instagram over an image of the letter from the Raiders that detailed his fines.
The Raiders should have been more concerned about Brown’s delusional end to last season.
The Steelers needed to win their final game to make the playoffs. The Wednesday before that game, Brown got into an argument with Roethlisberger, threw a ball in his quarterback’s direction and stomped out of practice. He went off the grid Thursday, Friday and Saturday, ignoring messages from Tomlin and other members of the team. Brown showed up at the stadium Sunday, when his agent contacted Tomlin and said Brown wanted to play. Tomlin said no. That was the end of Brown in black and gold.
Brown has yet to accept any responsibility for any of this.
On Twitter, and on LeBron James’ TV show The Shop, Brown spun a tale of having “bumps and bruises,” Tomlin telling him to stay home and the coach lying to the team that Brown quit. When the team voted JuJu Smith-Schuster their MVP, Brown attacked the young receiver on social media for a game-ending fumble. When Roethlisberger apologized for publicly criticizing Brown during the season, Brown tweeted, “Two face” — which undermined the sincerity of his previous apologies to Roethlisberger.
The whole thing was as shocking as Brown’s new blond mustache. Maybe he was enabled by the Raiders’ contract upgrade: $20 million per year, with $30 million guaranteed. But now a suspension could allow Oakland to void that deal and cut Brown loose.
Brown has 30 million reasons to swallow his medicine and his pride, apologize to his new team and hit the reset button on a once-brilliant career. On some level, Brown has to understand his responsibility to his teammates, his employers and his own transcendent talent.
“I bring accountability,” Brown said at his introductory news conference in Oakland.
This might be his last chance to make that statement true. Let’s hope it leads to redemption, not oblivion.