Sunday night was supposed to be a triumphant return to the football field for Antonio Brown. Sure, the wide receiver is still facing a civil lawsuit that says he sexually assaulted and raped his former trainer, Britney Taylor. Yes, this is the same man who once got dumped by three different teams in less than a year. But no matter. The medium is the message, and the message of any sport on TV is going to be redemption because, in sports, you are always one win away from exactly that. Everyone does love a winner. All Brown had to do was help his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, win a football game.
The Sunday Night Football broadcast team did its best to sell the redemption narrative. Before the game started, Mike Tirico called what happened with Brown a “saga.” Broadcaster Al Michaels called Brown “the NFL’s wayward son,” and later noted in the broadcast that “the victim’s advocacy groups are not happy about this at all.” Michaels’s partner in the booth, Cris Collinsworth, referred to “a lot of things hanging out there.” Sideline reporter Michele Tafoya told viewers that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians told her that he “saw a more mature person than the one he coached in Pittsburgh and thought [Brown] deserved a second chance.” She added that Brown “had a great week of practice.” There even was the usual timeline graphic of misdeeds that illustrated Brown’s “off-the-field issues.”
There was no mention of Taylor, which was of little surprise. After all, why say her name? She doesn’t play football, and this was a football broadcast.
The night did not go as planned. Brown was awful in his Bucs debut; so was everyone else on the team. Brown had a paltry three catches for 31 yards. The rest of his fellow receivers didn’t fare any better. Quarterback Tom Brady, the man with an historic six Super Bowl rings who lobbied to get Brown on his team, went 22 for 38 passing for 209 yards and three interceptions. With a minute and 12 seconds left in the game, Michaels and Collinsworth noted that the entire team had carried the ball just four times. A few moments later, the team’s quarterback kneeled to finish the game, technically counting as a fifth rush. The final team stat on rushes was five carries for eight yards.
The Bucs failed at every aspect of football on Sunday night: offense, defense, and special teams. The score felt fair when the final credits closed on Sunday Night Football: Saints 38, Buccaneers 3.
This should be the part where I tell you this was a good outcome. Brown was punished. The universe was sending a message about right and wrong. But only the most naive (or denial-laden) sports fan would believe me. Sunday night was just a football game, one of many, that the Buccaneers happened to lose. It was nothing more or less than that. The Bucs, from here, could go on a winning streak, they could tear up the league, and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. It was a moment, not a referendum, no matter how much anyone might want it to be. (It also ignores the Saints putting in their backup QB late in the game, who also settled his own civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault.)
The problem—then, now, and for who knows how long—is power. Brown has the power of being so good he can still convince an NFL team to take a chance on hiring him, and with that comes the podiums, the microphones, the press releases, the agents, the flacks who will tell you what to say, the TV packaging, the softball interviews, and the public relations machine that turns real life matters into the aforementioned “off-the-field incident.” Taylor, or nearly any woman in Brown’s orbit, doesn’t have that, because to give women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted real, tangible power, would be to rewrite the rules of our world.
Brown knows this. He’s back because his skillset, still being one of the best people in the world at catching footballs, gives him power and value, especially to a team that expects to be a Super Bowl contender this season. Brown spoke to the press the week before, saying all the right words and donning a black-and-white hat with the TB 12 logo, a visual kissing of the ring.
In a week filled with talk of change and redemption—after Brady’s golfing buddy, who also once bragged about grabbing women by their pussies, finally got voted out of the most prominent position in the country—I thought about the gap between the talk and the work. The talk is easy, it always has been, and it’s a trap to which even I fall prey. The work, the real work, is hard. It usually starts with a very open and a very honest conversation about who has the power, who doesn’t, and what can be done to address a power imbalance. Perhaps sports broadcasters will be ready to have that conversation one day, but that day wasn’t Sunday.