On Friday, the news broke that wide receiver Antonio Brown was signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Viewed through football goggles, this felt like a forgone conclusion finally happening. After all, Brown has been selected to seven Pro Bowls, has 75 career touchdowns, more than 11,000 career yards, and, at age 32, almost surely has a few more great games in him. The only surprise was which quarterback finally won the Brown sweepstakes, as various star QBs had publicly and shamelessly clamored for their teams to sign him. Lamar Jackson already lobbied for his Baltimore Ravens to sign Brown, and more recently Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tried to sell snagging Brown as a chance to bring him to a place where “he’ll grow a lot as a man too.” On Sunday, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians made sure to tell reporters, in regards to Brown, that, “I think he’s matured, and I believe in second chances.”
What all these statements about manhood and chances leave out, though, is why Brown didn’t have a team in the first place. Last year, Brown was sued in civil court by Britney Taylor, who said he sexually assaulted her three times while she worked for him as a personal trainer. Her lawsuit is still going forward in Broward County civil court. Less than a week after Taylor filed her lawsuit, another woman said Brown exposed his barely covered penis to her while she worked in his home. After that was reported, Brown responded by sending the woman threatening text messages. On July 31 of last year, the NFL announced it would suspend Brown for the first eight games of the 2020 season for the exceedingly vague “multiple violations of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.” By then, Brown already had been cut by his third team in seven months, the New England Patriots, and had alluded to retiring from in the NFL in what’s best described as a Twitter meltdown.
Between then and now, a lot has happened and a lot has changed about our world. And yet, through all of this, certain facts have remained unshakable, including this: If you can help a sports team win—no matter what you have done—you will have a professional team to call home. It’s no coincidence that Brown found a job right as his eight-game suspension period drew to a close, with Week 8 scheduled to start in a few days. Athletes know this, hence the unabashed lobbying from so many famous quarterbacks. The question is, for how long does everyone else want to pretend like they don’t know it, too?
Few moments illustrate this reality like a recent conversation on an ESPN podcast had by Ryan Clark, Mark Sanchez, and Bart Scott (the conversation begins at the 22:35-minute mark). All three used to play in the NFL and, at the time, the talk of sports media was the speculation that Brown was going to sign with Seattle. Host Mike Greenberg asked Clark, who used to play with Brown on the Pittsburgh Steelers, if he liked the idea of Brown going to Seattle. Clark replied, “Absolutely,” and pointed out that Brown hadn’t been in trouble, at least publicly, in months, while ignoring that Taylor’s lawsuit, that says Brown sexually assaulted her, is still ongoing. Clark even leaned into the idea first floated by Wilson, that the Seahawks aren’t just a sports team, they are also one of those fabled molders of men, a place that makes people better. Next up was former quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was asked if he would want Brown on his team. Sanchez said, “One hundred percent yes.” He also pointed out that the Seahawks had “adopted Coach Carroll’s mentality and that’s really about growing as a man and helping your brother on the team. Iron sharpens iron.”
The former linebacker Scott was having none of this. He told his colleagues: “Miss me with all this ‘I want to see him grow as a man’ crap. Listen … production breeds tolerance. Miss me with all this kumbaya stuff.” He then rattled off a list of players who were dropped by Seahawks because, ya know, they didn’t fit the game plan: “Because if you ask Earl Thomas, if you ask Kam Chancellor, if you ask Richard Sherman, it ain’t nothing to do about all this crap. This is about Russell Wilson trying to win a championship post-Legion of Boom.”
What follows? Clark bursts out laughing. Sanchez goes, “Whatever it takes, whatever it takes.” They don’t push back. And Scott keeps going.
“This is about winning football games and championships. They don’t care nothing about this dude as a man. They’ll throw him right back out in the scrap heap as soon as they get what they need out of him, which is a title, and we know after they get the title out of him they ain’t going to pay him.”
Clark and Sanchez? They keep laughing. When Scott is nearly done, Greenberg chimes in with, “I don’t think anything further needs to be said than that.” But Scott still isn’t done, “Come on, man. Kumbaya. Come on, better man be a better person. Earl Thomas wanted to be a better person, and you told him to hit the road, Jack.”
A large group of people want you to believe that Brown’s return to the NFL will be about redemption, or change, or his growth as a human being, and ignore the piles of evidence to the contrary. Ray Rice’s problem wasn’t really that he got caught on camera punching his future wife, it was that he caused his team a public relations crisis while his production as a running back was on the decline, and Brown exists as the inverse of the same equation. He is still accused in civil court of sexually assaulting a woman multiple times, but he can still run fast and catch passes.
And Tom Brady really wants to win the Super Bowl. Everyone in the Buccaneers organization surely does, which is why the hemming and hawing over whose idea this was is moot. Winning is why you play in the NFL; that’s why the league is staging a season despite our country still struggling with a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people here. The Bucs want to win a Super Bowl. Their fans want them to win a Super Bowl. Brown might help them win a Super Bowl and the team can drop him the minute after they hoist the trophy. So on Sunday, Bucs coach Bruce Arians made sure to say all the right things about Brown, which were the same things that Wilson had been saying days earlier, “I think he’s matured, and I believe in second chances.” To female fans, he said, per ESPN, “I think you just let the court system do its job. Allegations—I’ve been around a lot of players that have had allegations that weren’t true, some were—so let the court system handle it. If it’s found out to be true, he won’t be with us.”
Arians, naturally, leaves out that by the time the court system handles it, the NFL season will be over. He was less coy with longtime NFL writer Peter King, telling him “injuries” necessitate the Bucs signing Brown.
“I mean, we got two Pro Bowl receivers [Mike Evans, Chris Godwin]. We went to Chicago with none of them, really. They were hurt. And here’s a guy that’s a Pro Bowl type player … We’re on the hook for nothing in this deal,” Arians told King. “He screws up one time, he’s gone. I don’t think he will because he wants to play.”
The NFL is not a church, even if it gathers on Sundays. It is not a 12-step program. It is not an institution of learning, unless you count the playbook. It is not here to mold men, or to mold any human beings regardless of gender. It is here to stage football games that make fans happy, happy fans spend money, and fans are happier when their teams win. You know what else happens when a team wins? A coach, one like Arians, gets to keep his job. Everyone gets to keep their job and, perhaps, brag about how shrewd they were. Arians is betting that if he can win it all with Brown, everyone will call him a genius and he’ll get leverage for his next contract negotiations. Who doesn’t want that?
All other ephemera—the charity campaigns, feel-good commercials reminding you of all your favorite Hall of Famers or declaring “Football is Family,” the player conduct policies that they promise they will get right the next time, the singing of the national anthem, whatever other song has been added on top of the national anthem—that’s just marketing. Nearly every coach styles themselves as a teacher and portrays his athletes as the wayward youth who just need some guidance and support; even the Netflix documentary Cheer, about competitive cheerleading, couldn’t help itself and sold the same narrative. Less than a year later, one of its stars was arrested on a charge of producing child pornography.
What all these coaches, players, and team executives know is this: Winning does take care of everything. That’s why college football is being played in cities with COVID-19 outbreaks, and that’s why Brown will be back. The easy answer would be to wave it off as the same old sports problem. But sport isn’t that complicated, or that special, nor is it somehow magically divorced from our everyday nightmares, even if it is sold as an escape from them. The Buccaneers know that their fans will forgive everything if they win, an utterly unremarkable trait as every fanbase does that in every sport. Hell, if the Bucs win enough, I can already see the text messages that I’ll get from friends in the Tampa Bay area, telling me they believe Brown is a changed man and, also, did I see that amazing catch he just made? You can feign shock, if you feel like, but it all fits within the great American forgiveness doctrine: You can get redemption if you can make me money.