Sports

Antonio Brown accused of sexual assault by former personal trainer

You’d think that after a summer of cryotherapy, frostbite, helmets, trades, fines, fights, near fights, conspiracies, and arguably the most boring costume on FOX’s The Masked Singer (he was the hippo), Antonio Brown’s summer saga would be over once the former Pittsburgh Steeler finally got what he wanted – a spot on the New England Patriots, current Super Bowl champions. But Tuesday’s New York Times report accusing Brown of sexual assault has highlighted the most damning problems with the National Football League (NFL), especially with regard to the #MeToo movement within sports.

As we learned in the report, Britney Taylor, Brown’s former physical trainer, filed a civil lawsuit in a Florida court accusing the star wide receiver of three separate incidents of sexual assault – two in June 2017 in Florida, and one in May 2018 in Pittsburgh. Claims made in a civil lawsuit are made with no formal police investigation.

If the claims are true, Brown wouldn’t face charges or jail time. He would have to pay compensation to Taylor for the harm caused. In a statement released on Twitter, Brown’s legal team claims that Taylor approached Brown in 2017 to invest $1.6 million in one of Taylor’s business projects, which apparently was a cover to pay off a $30,000 IRS tax lien and use $300,000 “to purchase property already owned by the accuser and her mother.” The statement also claims that in 2018, Brown and Taylor reportedly engaged in a consensual personal relationship while Taylor was helping to train Brown for the upcoming football season.

But just as quickly as news of the lawsuit broke out, the NFL has dealt with the case in typical fashion. For now, Antonio Brown will play for the Patriots while the NFL conducts their own investigation, planning to work with Taylor in the case and interview Brown next week, according to the New York Post.

While the NFL was reportedly considering placing Brown on the NFL Commissioner’s Exempt List, their eventual decision to let Brown continue to play is frustrating, disappointing, but not surprising. For what feels like years, the NFL has received nonstop criticism for how it handles its players’ cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse. While the organization has set policies and made efforts to improve this, such as a six-game unpaid ban for domestic violence cases against partners and the NFL Players Association Commission on Violence Prevention, it feels as if the NFL treats cases more as public relations problems against their players and their organizations rather than recognizing their influence on the world at large.

The NFL Commissioner’s Exempt List doesn’t seem to be a punishment. According to the NFL Player Personnel Policy Manual, “The Exempt List is a special player status available to clubs only in unusual circumstances. The List includes those players who have been declared by the Commissioner to be temporarily exempt from counting within the Active List limit.”

To interpret this policy from its jargon, Brown would not be able to play games or practice for games, but he would still be able to receive treatment at training facilities and essentially be put on paid leave for the time being. He also would not count towards his team’s standard 53-man roster. Most recent players to be placed on this list include Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy in 2014, both in separate child abuse and domestic violence cases, and Kareem Hunt in 2018 before his eventual suspension last fall for beating a woman in a hotel.

With regard to cases of personal misconduct such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, it feels as if the NFL acts outside of the standard moral practices of business. Combined with an inept criminal justice system when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault and harassment, especially high profile cases, NFL players and other athletes often escape with little punishment.

This kind of treatment is so contrary to what we’ve seen in the past year and a half with #MeToo’s influence in the entertainment industry. Stars like Kevin Spacey, Max Landis, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein swiftly fell out of the spotlight and into public disgrace. But in the largely male-dominated world of sports, the #MeToo movement is incredibly behind. Just this year, wide receiver Tyreek Hill was investigated for child abuse, yet was still offered a three-year, $54 million contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. Hill was also accused of domestic assault in 2014, eventually pleading guilty and serving three years of probation.

Across the sports industry, men are almost exclusively in charge. There are few women in the front offices of teams, and even fewer in the offices of the leagues, which stands in stark contrast to some of the progress made by the world of entertainment. In the entertainment industry, Hollywood is attempting to make a more conscious effort and awareness to give a larger representative voice to women and other diverse perspectives.

Meanwhile, all four professional sports leagues are led by male commissioners; Roger Goodell, called “the most powerful man in sports” by Business Week, has worked as the NFL commissioner for 12 years. National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner Gary Bettman has held the position since 1993. No matter how many initiatives and committees the NFL or any other sports leagues build to combat personal misconduct and domestic abuse, their poor handling of these issues over the years makes it hard to have faith in these initiatives.

There needs to be a fundamental societal change in the industry for #MeToo to have any chance to possibly break into sports. In an article in New York Magazine, Will Leitch claims that “When the only goal is winning, it’s quite easy to rationalize your morality into ‘second chances’ and ‘redemption stories.’ If he plays for another team, he’s a monster. If he plays for yours, he has ‘overcome off-field adversity.’ If you produce, your crimes will not be forgiven, but pushed under the table. Sports will not change until they are required to.”

The #MeToo movement has already struggled with the line between these redemption stories, providing these second chances, and tackling some larger, complex issues. For the #MeToo movement to overcome these issues and to break foundation within sports, the culture of sports needs to be upended. But with talented players like Antonio Brown acting seemingly however they want and getting away with anything, what will it take for sports culture to reach this necessity to change?