More than 3.7 million people follow the Patriots’ Antonio Brown on Instagram, and a fair chunk of them do, presumably, not just because he is one of the best receivers playing the country’s most popular sport.
Brown, 31, is now ensnared in a maelstrom, with the attention that he draws as an athlete spotlighting a federal lawsuit that accuses him of sexual assault and rape, while also bringing more scrutiny to the N.F.L.’s handling of reports of violence against women.
A woman who had worked as Brown’s trainer is the plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday. The woman, a former gymnast named Britney Taylor who met Brown about 10 years ago when they were students at Central Michigan, described three assaults in the court filing, two in June 2017 and another in May 2018.
Profane messages from Brown to Taylor are presented as evidence in the lawsuit, which also says that when Taylor returned to Brown’s home in South Florida to retrieve some personal effects on the day after she claims he raped her, she wanted to discuss what had happened and Brown replied that she “made me feel like a real rapist.”
Brown has denied the accusations in a statement from his lawyer, and on Wednesday his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said in an interview with ESPN: “I’m advising him to let the truth come out. I’m advising him to concentrate on football. I’m advising him to cooperate with the Patriots, with the N.F.L., with the N.F.L. Players Association. Antonio and I both strongly believe that these allegations are very serious. In no way do we condone any type of illegal conduct, misbehavior. None of that happened here.”
Late Tuesday night, the Patriots issued a statement saying that the N.F.L. planned to do its own investigation of the accusations.
The league, after mishandling reports of violence against women in the past, strengthened its personal conduct policy in 2014 — when some prominent players, including the running back Ray Rice, were charged with abuse or domestic violence, then later suspended. But enforcement of the policy remains complicated, with the league meting out punishments that appear inconsistent and struggling to get the cooperation of those involved.
Brown practiced Wednesday with the New England Patriots, who officially signed him on Monday, two days after he was released by the Oakland Raiders. But he has not commented publicly on the allegations, and remaining silent — no provocative Instagram stories or elaborately produced videos — must be sapping his willpower.
Brown’s talent granted him certain privileges that were not extended to teammates who did not regularly catch 100 passes or score 10 touchdowns per season. And as well as any superstar, he has leveraged his superior production to his advantage and for everyone’s entertainment. Whether co-starring in a Drake video or flouting fines for yet another instantly memed touchdown celebration, Brown has cultivated a following that strains to see what he can possibly do next.
Brown has a penchant for making things public that should otherwise stay private, without the slightest compunction. Whether that means an Instagram post of a letter from the Raiders saying he would be fined nearly $54,000 for missing practices or, later, demanding on the platform that Oakland cut him, or releasing a YouTube video containing snippets of a phone call with his Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, Brown appears to relish defying the football standard for propriety.
He has circumvented mainstream news outlets to dispense his point of view, shaping how he is perceived in a league vigilant about suppressing individuality. In a different light, it’s an expression of self-determination, following a pattern dating to his time in Pittsburgh, where he spent the first nine seasons of his career. Brown was benched for the Steelers’ final 2018 regular-season game for insubordination, and afterward continued trying to force his way out, despite being under contract.
The Steelers, weary of his antics, traded him in March to Oakland, where last week, after a chaotic six months, he engineered his exit from that team, too.
On a 53-man roster, not all players are treated the same. The more talented a player, the more leeway he generally has. But every franchise has its threshold for lenience and embarrassment, and two in the last six months reached theirs with Brown.
Now it is New England’s turn to manage him, and under Coach Bill Belichick the Patriots have demonstrated a profound enthusiasm for acquiring players whose behavior warded off other teams. The Patriots do so, again and again, because they are confident that their structure and leadership can coax exemplary sportsmanship and meaningful contributions, while also rehabilitating images in need of repair. Those who can conform, who can subjugate their egos for the greater good of the team, will thrive. Those who cannot will not last.
It is far too early to know how Brown will adjust in New England, where he will dress two lockers from quarterback Tom Brady and where the Patriots, as ever, operate in the day-to-day tedium that has taken them to nine Super Bowls, and six championships, in 18 seasons.
The Patriots will function, as they always do, inside the Belichick bunker, where Brown has landed, willfully, and gained yet another opportunity because of his aptitude for catching a ball and running with it: a one-year deal with what might be the best team in football.
Over the weekend, when news broke that Brown would be signing with New England, he posted six times to Instagram. His last message, fired off maybe 48 hours before the lawsuit was filed, reads: “FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU KNOW IS RIGHT.” It was liked more than 220,000 times.
Ben Shpigel is a sports reporter and has covered the N.F.L. and the New York Jets since 2011. He has also covered the New York Yankees and, before that, the Mets. He previously worked for The Dallas Morning News. @benshpigel
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