Get over it.
That was the message Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown tried to convey this past week.
The past doesn’t matter, he seemed to say. With the Super Bowl upon us, the only concern should be about his ability to catch passes on Sunday.
Brown’s preferred talking points were his love for quarterback Tom Brady, his team’s drive to beat the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs, and his comeback.
That comeback did not involve an injury that eroded his electrifying talent on the field. Those skills have remained sufficiently intact for Brown, 32, to find a plush spot in the N.F.L., in spite of the history he did not want to discuss at a requisite pre-Super Bowl news conference.
“I’d be doing a disservice if I talked about things that are not a focus of this game,” he said.
Those things include withering verbal abuse aimed at the mother of three of his children and recorded on video. And an accusation of sexual harassment that was described in detail in a national magazine. And a looming lawsuit accusing him of rape, a claim that Brown has vociferously denied.
Now, he is one win from a championship ring after off-the-field trouble sent his career into one of the most stunning tumbles experienced by a star athlete in recent memory.
Tampa Bay gambled on him in a way that no other team dared, signing Brown to a one-year contract in October after he had been out of the game for a season and a half. The Buccaneers did not heed commentators who, looking at the pattern of trouble around Brown, said he needed time away from the league — possibly for good, but at least until his lawsuit was resolved.
The team also chose to look past the #MeToo movement and its fundamental lesson: Women with stories of pain, and of powerlessness in their dealings with famous men, should be heard and taken seriously.
Let’s remember that one in four women are subjected to abuse by intimate partners during their lifetimes, according to a government report. Let’s think of what they endure every time they see athletes like Brown, with unresolved accusations around them, take the field.
Let’s listen to Brenda Tracy, who describes herself as the survivor of a 1998 gang rape by a group of men that included two Oregon State football players. The players weren’t criminally charged, but they were suspended by the coach for making “a bad choice.” Tracy became an advocate for abused women, working toward change by sharing her story with anyone who will listen. Colleges across the country have hired her to speak to their athletic teams.
“I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year,” she told me. “With Antonio Brown out there, it’s just too much.”
Ahead of the big game, Brown characterized himself as a changed man — humbled, grateful, and in control.
He spoke in quiet, careful tones. He gave the sense that he sees the accusations as a chance to prove that he can conquer adversity, mostly by catching Brady’s passes.
“I want my legacy to be a guy that was persistent, a guy that never gave up, no matter the odds, no matter the hate,” Brown said.
What he really wanted was to move on.
Let’s not. Let’s look at the claims, made by a personal trainer named Britney Taylor, in the lawsuit.
In court filings, Taylor said that Brown assaulted her twice in 2017. She also asserted that Brown raped her in 2018.
Through his legal team, the wide receiver has denied the accusations. Brown and Taylor were involved in a “consensual personal relationship,” his lawyer said in a statement.
It is important to remember that the court proceedings can still be avoided if the two parties reach a settlement. It is not a criminal trial, in which Brown would face the possibility of prison.
But Britney Taylor isn’t alone.
In a Sports Illustrated article, an artist made detailed accusations of sexual harassment by Brown. The wide receiver also once targeted the mother of three of his children with a profane tirade and then posted a video of the incident on social media.
On Twitter in 2018, he threatened a reporter from ESPN’s The Undefeated who wrote an article about Brown’s thorny personal life and turbocharged social media use. Brown ended up apologizing through a statement: “It is not OK to threaten anyone, and I need to be better spiritually and professionally.”
That year he also settled a lawsuit that accused him of throwing heavy furniture from his 14th-floor apartment and nearly hitting a toddler.
Brown’s exasperating behavior as a teammate prompted the Pittsburgh Steelers to trade him to the Oakland Raiders in 2019. Just before the start of the season, the Raiders dumped him for similar reasons.
He landed briefly in New England, early in Brady’s final season with the Patriots. The lawsuit accusing Brown of rape soon became public, followed by the artist’s accusations of harassment. His third employer of that year cut him loose.
Brady, who said recently that he and Brown had “connected right away” in New England, endorsed Tampa Bay’s decision to bring the receiver aboard midway through this season. When Brown arrived in town, he initially lived in Brady’s home.
Yet Brown and the Buccaneers seem like an odd pairing. The team has two full-time female coaches, and there were only eight in the entire league this season. The Women’s Sports Foundation has honored Coach Bruce Arians for supporting women in the N.F.L.
But Arians proved that talent matters more than principle.
Sadly, that’s too often the bottom line for male stars in major sports. If you are accused of abusing or harassing women and are easy to replace, your job is probably gone. It doesn’t take a conviction, trial or arrest. (See Jared Porter, the former New York Mets general manager who was fired after accusations that he had repeatedly sent inappropriate texts to a female reporter.)
If you are a star, well, your entitlement is virtually unlimited.
Brown signed with the Buccaneers just after completing an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The reason for that penalty? He had pleaded no contest to burglary and assault charges after a dispute with a truck driver.
He had every opportunity to express remorse for that incident this past week. He did not.
So again, let’s listen instead to women, to people who won’t be in front of a huge global audience this weekend.
Mindy Murphy runs The Spring of Tampa Bay, the largest shelter serving domestic violence survivors in Hillsborough County, home to the Buccaneers.
When the N.F.L. tried to change its culture a few years ago, after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught striking his fiancée, Murphy helped conduct training with the Buccaneers on abuse.
Now she feels disillusioned.
Seeing Brown chase a Super Bowl ring is a “disservice to what survivors have experienced,” she said. “When a team in the N.F.L. says, ‘We are going to hire him, and he deserves a second chance,’ or they say, ‘We don’t know for sure what’s happened, because it happened behind closed doors,’ they reinforce the idea that it’s not a good idea to speak up.”
Remember that while watching the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, and also remember Brown’s past.