Patriots fumbling conversation around Antonio Brown allegations

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New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown pauses while working out during practice, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

How a crisis is handled — not the crisis itself — reveals something about an organization.

Antonio Brown may or may not be guilty of sexual assault. We won’t know the answer to that for a while and we may never truly know — but we do know that words matter. The conversation around Brown and the allegations against him is proof that the NFL community hasn’t learned from previous mistakes on how to handle such cases.

To recap: A civil lawsuit in the southern district of Florida alleging sexual assault was filed against Brown on Tuesday. The specific allegations include two alleged incidents of sexual assault in June of 2017 and an accused rape at Brown’s Miami home in 2018. The civil lawsuit was filed by his former trainer, Britney Taylor, who claims she has suffered from suicidal ideations since and thus is asking for damages. She also claims she has text messages from Brown proving his guilt.

The jurisdictions where the lawsuits were filed said they weren’t contacted about the allegations, so for now this is solely a civil matter — not a criminal one.

On Wednesday, the NFL began its investigation. Taylor plans to meet with the league next week, after she gets married this weekend.

Brown has denied all allegations via his lawyers and continues to practise, though the Patriots have been quiet about whether he will be allowed to play this weekend. The NFL, for its part, have so far put up no roadblocks.

Brown has not been made available for comment by the Patriots, but what’s being said by the powerful men around Brown has been problematic to say the least.

His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, went on ESPN and said, “[Brown] is a loving father of five children and has a daughter. I myself am a father and I have two children — two daughters that I love very much along with my wife. I wouldn’t be doing this interview if I didn’t believe Antonio.”

Reality check: Harvey Weinstein has daughters. He’s also given money to charitable causes that positively impact women. Being related to a member of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you’re incapable of abusing them.

Rosenhaus then doubled down, saying, “These allegations in the lawsuit are false. They are not true — they are absolutely not true.”

Rosenhaus is a sports agent, not a criminal attorney, and unless he’s been by Brown’s side night and day for the past few years, using the word “absolutely” is reckless, because it’s unverifiable.

The Patriots’ power brokers took an opposite, but still problematic, approach.

Tom Brady smirked when asked about the incident, declining a chance to speak on the matter and explaining that he was “trying to show up and play football.” He added, “Things that don’t involve me, don’t involve me.”

Though no athlete should be forced to answer for the actions of his or teammates, some acknowledgement of the severity of the matter would’ve been appropriate, particularly since the league has an optics problem when it comes to its players’ treatment of women. Dodging a question by saying you’re focused on your upcoming opponent seems, at the very least, disrespectful.

But perhaps dodging tough conversations is The Patriot Way – at least for the team’s biggest stars.

Bill Belichick’s cold responses were predictable, yet equally disappointing.

“In Antonio’s situation, both Antonio and his representatives have made statements — I’m not going to be expanding on those. They are what they are. We’ve looked into the situation. We’re taking it very seriously all the way through the organization. I’m sure there are questions, but I’m not going to be entering into a discussion about that today.”

Belichick refused to acknowledge the accusation and the accuser – instead referring to a vague “situation.”

It’s more than a situation. This is a potential sexual abuser, whom you recently signed.

According to that same ESPN interview, Rosenhaus and Brown had been anticipating the civil suit “for some time,” and would definitely have been aware of the allegations when they signed with New England. Did the Patriots know? Would that have changed their decision to sign him? Will he play while the investigation is ongoing? Do they have a zero-tolerance policy in the event he is found guilty? What if he settles out of court? Does the response change because it’s a civil suit? Will it change if it becomes a criminal suit? Are there steps in place to help rehab him in the event the allegations are proven true? Is there any interest in supporting the alleged survivor?

These are all legitimate questions that the club could answer without making a judgement on Brown’s innocence or guilt. Acknowledging the severity of the issue is not showing a lack of support for Brown. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Belichick has repeatedly asserted, “We’re taking it one day at a time. Just like we always do.”

Bill, you don’t always have an accused rapist in your locker room. Treating this with the usual “On to Cincinnati” shtick isn’t good enough. This isn’t Spygate or Deflategate — it’s bigger. This is a civil investigation.

Brady and Belichick could stand to learn from their colleague, Patriots special teams player and seven-time Pro Bowler, Matthew Slater, who said, “First of all, I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of a situation like this. It’s a very sensitive matter. And I don’t want to minimize it at all. With that being said, I don’t think I should be speaking on it or am qualified to speak on it because I don’t have any knowledge of the situation.”

Although he too fell back on the vague “situation” descriptor, he didn’t pass judgement on the guilt of his teammate and he didn’t make a sweeping statement about sexual assault. He efficiently and thoughtfully used words to acknowledge the seriousness of the matter and body language to show that he cared about the subject even if he didn’t feel comfortable speaking on it.

One thing the NFL’s previous missteps around the personal-conduct policy have taught us is that it is very tempting to handle these matters through the lens of lost production — what is lost if a player is taken off the field? But what message does it send if we keep him on it? And how do we navigate a world in which “innocent until proven guilty” and “believe survivors” seem hard to balance simultaneously?

The first step would be to treat the topic with the attention to detail that it deserves, something the Patriots’ leaders failed to do by discussing it like it was just another football distraction.

Winning inoculates a lot of things, and Belichick has created a legacy of success. His 226-79 record and six Super Bowls in New England give him the leeway to operate as he pleases. But imagine if the team’s commitment to participating in the conversation about sexual assault was as strong as their commitment to success? That would be a legacy worth bragging about.

One of the things the #MeToo movement brought to the forefront was that sexual assault is often deemed “someone else’s problem.”

It would be easy for a coach to take a pass on this, preferring to deal in Xs and Os, passing the buck to the GM who’s paid to deal with these types of things.

But in this case, Belichick wears both hats. And so it falls on him to take a firm, thoughtful stance on a matter that is plaguing the league that employs him, whether he likes it or not.

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