Antonio Brown
Photo: Getty

Halftime Report | The case of Antonio Brown and murky NFL contracts

What’s next for Antonio Brown is yet to be determined. Most assume that the nature of his exit – which he has since admitted could have been handled better – spells the end of his NFL career. Or does it?

  /  01.12.2022

It’s been less than two weeks since Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown stripped his jersey and equipment off in the third quarter of the team’s game against the New York Jets. The athlete tossed his jersey into the stands and scampered through the end zone revving up the crowd before jogging off, and setting off a myriad of questions and theories. During his routine postgame press conference, head coach Bruce Arians stated, “He is no longer a Buc.” However, Brown did indeed remain a Buc for an additional four days, which was a head scratcher. During that time, contract incentives, medical report inconsistencies, and mental health were all topics swirling around what looked to be the latest of his shenanigans. After all, the 7-time Pro Bowler was on his fourth team in three years – leaving behind bitter tastes in each organization as he departed. Tampa Bay appeared to just be his latest victim so to speak. Or were they?

Let’s be honest. Brown has become known more for his off-field antics than the talents that made him a 4-time first team All-Pro. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him from Central Michigan in the sixth round with the 195th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. In only his second season, Brown became the first player in league history to have more than 1,000 yards receiving and returning in the same season. It was the first of many milestones reached while wearing the black and yellow, but that relationship soured, hitting rock bottom in 2018. As the regular season drew to a close, Brown was inactive for the team’s final game with head coach Mike Tomlin citing the reason as “injury and lack of information.” It was later reported that the receiver had thrown a football at quarterback Ben Roethslisberger and was upset that up-and-coming receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was named team MVP. After a reckless driving charge, the team and Brown agreed to part ways and less than a month later, the then Oakland Raiders made him the highest paid receiver in the league. However, he would never play a snap for the black and silver.

The time with Oakland was short-lived – starting with foot troubles stemming from improper footwear worn during cryotherapy to beefing with the NFL over new helmet safety standards, and culminating with him missing team workout and arguing with the team’s general manager. Brown allegedly called Mike Mayock a “cracker” and released a private phone call between himself and then-head coach Jon Gruden. Citing “conduct detrimental to the team,” the Raiders released him and were no longer on the hook for the guaranteed money from the monster contract they had signed Brown to. The moment he checked his phone and learned of his release, Brown posted a video of him celebrating, screaming, “I’m free” to his YouTube channel.

He was signed the same day by the New England Patriots, but that, too, was short-lived. After playing only one game for the team, Brown was released following sexual assault and sexual misconduct accusations. He was not picked up by another team for the remainder of the 2019 season. In June of 2020, the NFL suspended Brown eight games for his arrest in connection with an attack of a moving truck driver. His charges included felony assault and battery, burglary of a vehicle, misdemeanor battery, and misdemeanor criminal mischief. Not to mention, the eventual Super Bowl LV champion was going through it in his personal life – publicly embarrassing the mother of his youngest children via social media.

Tampa Bay was supposed to be different. A rebirth if you will. Brown had reconciled with his on-again, off-again fiancée and was getting a shot with a true Super Bowl contender. It was no secret that all-everything quarterback Tom Brady was largely behind New England’s signing of the receiver, and it appears that he had some influence on Arians giving Brown another shot in the NFL. He joined the team in October, was an instant contributor, and managed to stay scandal-free as the Bucs made their Super Bowl title run. Things appeared to be on the up and up – until December 2021.

Brown’s personal chef, disgruntled as he claimed that Brown owed him money for services, accused him of giving the NFL a fake COVID-vaccination card. The allegations turned out to be true and the league suspended him for three games. All eyes were on the Bucs as Arians claimed he had a zero-tolerance policy when signing the Liberty City native. However, the NFL is a performance-based league where winning takes priority and – no matter how you slice it – Brown certainly boosts the Bucs’ chances of defending their Super Bowl title. Therefore, he was back…for a little while, at least. After his wild exit from MetLife Stadium, social media had a field day. Posts popped up of Brown waiting for an Uber and inside the Uber, appearing unphased by his latest antics. His own posts suggested that this was just the latest chapter in the book of “Boomin.” Uploading a pre-game photo of himself with the caption “Super Gremlin” and releasing his single titled “Pit Not the Palace” within hours of his departure certainly supported that theory. However, in the next couple days, what seemed to be cut-and-dry was anything but.

There’s AB’s side, the Bucs side, and the truth that resides somewhere in the middle. The NFL world of contracts is murky – with several deals back-loaded and chock-full of incentives. Brown was set to make $999,999 by hitting three incentive marks. He only needed eight receptions, 55 receiving yards, and one receiving touchdown to hit pay-dirt. Even if those marks were not hit in Week 17; he almost certainly would have a high likelihood of reaching them against the Carolina Panthers the following week. After all, he had 10 catches for 101 yards in the teams’ Week 16 matchup. Fans thought the Bucs were benching the star so that they wouldn’t have to pay him, but both Brown and Arians stated that this was not the case. The coach said that he asked the star player to go into the game numerous times, but he refused. By Monday, the sports world learned that Brown felt he was not healthy enough to return to the game despite Arians’ claim that he was cleared to play and that he had no clue what led to the sudden departure. On Wednesday, Brown released a lengthy statement through his attorney along with screenshots of the text conversation between him and Arians regarding his health.

He accused the Bucs of an “ongoing cover-up” and forcing him to play with “broken bone fragments stuck in my ankle, the ligament torn from the bone, and cartilage loss,” according to an MRI. With regards to the team keeping Brown on the active roster, GM Jason Licht states that they made two doctor appointments in New York so that the team could place him on Injured Reserve and pay him for the remainder of the year. But, Brown missed both appointments. Licht went on to say that the medical staff was never notified of the injury before or during the Jets game. Furthermore, Brown and his agent declined to send over medical information from their doctor and would not return calls to the team.

There’s a lot of fine print when it comes to contracts, and they are not always player-friendly. It has also been revealed that the week before the Jets game, Brown and his agent requested that the remaining $2 million of incentives of his contract this season be guaranteed. A request that the team denied. After he was officially released on Thursday, Brown has gone on podcasts questioning authenticity of Brady’s friendship with him and mentioning tight end Rob Gronkowski’s contract relative to his own. Interestingly enough, it would be Gronkowski’s game against the Carolina Panthers in the last week of the season that would throw another caveat into Brown’s claims. With the playoffs, and the ongoing contest, firmly in hand, the Bucs left Brady and Gronkowski in the game against the Panthers so that the 11th-year tight end could hit his incentive marks – which he did. The involvement of attorneys could spell a messy breakup between the team and the 12-year wideout.

The real issue here is that despite bringing in the most revenue, the NFL is the only North American professional sports association that does not customarily guarantee multi-year contracts for veteran players. That certainly factors into the decision of some players to take the field and play through injuries – and injuries are aplenty. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University found that the league has “10 times more injuries per game than the next closest professional league.” NFL has jokingly stood for “Not For Long” due to the average career hovering around three years, over 75% of players are broke within three years of retirement and the injuries they played through can also lead to long-term issues and impairment. Although the announcements of guaranteed contracts are rising, the term can be misleading as – most of said money is only partially guaranteed. As it stands, the NFL’s three types of guarantees are skill, injury, and cap. Compensation can be guaranteed for one, two, all, or none of these classifications. Since we are discussing Brown in particular, we’ll focus on injury guarantees. According to nfl.com, an injury guarantee is described as follows:

Injury guarantee: If a player is released but is currently unable to perform football duties (i.e., doesn’t pass a physical) as a result of team activities, the player is entitled to any money in his contract protected against injury. An injury-only guarantee is the most common in terms of partially guaranteed money.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott currently has the most fully guaranteed money at $66 million. Due to his past issues, Brown was on what one would call a “prove it” deal. In May, he signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay worth up to $6.25 million. Broken down, his base salary was $916,000. He received a signing bonus of $2,000,000 and a $370,000 roster bonus. Hitting the statistical benchmarks would’ve earned him the $6.25 million total.

What’s next for Brown is yet to be determined. Most assume that the nature of his exit – which he has since admitted could have been handled better – spells the end of his NFL career. Whether the end of his Tampa Bay tenure is due to health (mental or physical), muddy contract structure, or somewhere in between, we must also remember that the NFL is a performance-based league and a business. If a team feels they are a wide receiver away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February, it wouldn’t be surprising for Brown’s phone to ring again.

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