We all have some idea how our legal system works when it comes to proving one’s guilt or
innocence. Far be it from me to analyze the judicial process our country has in place to
interpret the law, but having spent my entire adult life in and around NFL locker rooms, I do
know how they operate when it comes to passing judgement.
This week, the NFL suspended Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown and two
teammates for three weeks after they misrepresented their COVID-19 vaccination status.
For those who have not heard, a former personal chef, whom Brown owed money too,
called him on the carpet for using a fake vaccine card in order to sidestep his team’s
guidelines and protocols that were instituted by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
In the wake of the pandemic, the players’ union agreed upon protocols that mandated how
team members would navigate daily in and around their buildings due to COVID-19. Brown
and two of his teammates used falsified vaccine cards, blatantly misrepresenting they had
been fully vaccinated and as the NFL’s investigation showed, spit into the wind of everyone
involved collective faces.
The three-week suspension, rumored to be much more before a behind the scenes
settlement, included a non-appeal clause, agreed upon between the accused and
management. In effect, this was the legal equivalent of a “plea bargain”. Wither they broke
the law or not is up to someone else to decide.
My concern, if I am the Bucs, goes much further than Brown just missing three weeks.
Let me first say, I’m not surprised by Brown’s actions or the level of his antics. Last year,
Tampa Bay took a risk not many other organizations were willing to take, bringing the
troubled Brown on board just prior to their run to the Super Bowl. His baggage was both
heavy and VERY public.
At the time they acquired Brown, I am sure they felt the eventual reward clearly outweighed
the risk. It played out that way with the Buccaneers earning their second Super Bowl title in
franchise history last season.
Having said that, the public opinion of Brown is consistent and loud. and how they have
come to their conclusion is transparent. However, the jury made up of Bucs ownership,
General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians is another matter and their
decision making factors will be much less transparent. That group now must be concerned
with their own locker room and the relationships NOW between Brown and his teammates.
Brown’s biggest trump card to date in playing this “reputation game” has been that he has
had the support of QB Tom Brady. Remember, weeks before the Bucs brought Brown in,
Arians said the team would have “no interest” in signing the outlandish and borderline
unstable wide receiver who had been run out of Pittsburgh, Oakland and New England.
Brown really had no viable options and it wasn’t because he couldn’t help a team on the
field. It was all about the accumulation of baggage relating to his character and the
selfishness that caused such distraction.
Now it has been determined by the NFL that Brown has flat out lied and deceived his
teammates, coaches and others within the Bucs organization by blatantly playing the fake
vaccine card. As a teammate, that would bother me. My guess is his respect within the
locker room has taken a sizeable hit. The three-game suspension will come and go but
these relationships and the value Brown brings to a much different Bucs team a year
removed from their Super Bowl victory are now being evaluated by management.
Brown has only played in five games in 2021 although his numbers and production have
been solid. To this point, the Bucs have played more games without him than with him.
His relationship with his teammates will be what determines his future in Tampa. While they
now appear to be a shoo-in to win their division, the Buccaneers are still in a battle for NFC
supremacy and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Brown’s fate will not be determined by pressure from the outside world, whether political or
media driven. Fair or not, NFL teams get to set their own rules (within limits) and apply their
own sentencing. My guess is his actions have caused many eye roles within the Bucs
building. Some players may say nothing, but a faction of guys have no doubt spoken to
Brady or have trekked upstairs to voice their displeasure with management.
This is a team that brought back all of its starters from a year ago AND Brown was the last
to re-sign. That alone tells me there was some trepidation by management before they
agreed to commit to the mercurial player for another year. Word is, he was already on
“double secret probation”. At a minimum, Brown’s recent suspension is a strike against the
team’s fabric. There is now more doubt than the last time the question was asked last year
about “is he worth it?”
The 2021 Bucs have faced some adversity along the way in their bid to repeat as Super
Bowl champs but they have found a way to win without Brown. A new found running game
and the emergence and ever-expanding role of RB Leonard Fournette has given them more
options to win games than ever before.
The Bucs situation with Brown is much different than the Green Bay Packers and QB Aaron
Rodgers. Rodgers deceived those outside the Packers bubble but not his teammates and
staff. My experience has been that teammates usually have each other’s back but in
Brown’s case, I am not sure he has ever had anyone’s back but his own.
The Buccaneers have three weeks to gauge locker room sentiment and make a decision.
There have been cries from the media, both real and social, who at times anoint themselves
as judge and jury, to release Brown immediately. Their opinions will not count for nearly as
much as the trust that Brown has lost in his own locker room over the last year and a half.
The recent suspension has already cost Brown plenty in the pocket book. Let’s see if his
recent actions cost him anything else.