There is No More To Say About Antonio Brown and His Helmet
NAPA, Calif. — But I’ll say it anyway: The Raiders should put Brown on notice today by sending him the dreaded “five-day letter,” which every agent and knowledgeable player would absolutely dread. This letter would mean that Brown would have to return to the team by Friday and (be an adult and) play with a league-approved helmet, or he would be put on the reserve/left squad list, meaning he couldn’t play for the Raiders or any team in 2019. It’s also Belichick insurance, preventing the Patriots or some other contender figuring they can deal with the Brown headache for four or five months if it allows them to win a game or three more.
I did consider urging the Raiders to just fire Brown. It just might come to that. But the five-day letter is a good starting point, because it draws a line in the sand immediately. As Mike Florio reported at Pro Football Talk, not reporting after receiving that letter would end Brown’s season and prevent the Raiders from having to pay $29.1 million future guarantees on Brown’s Oakland contract. It’s worth doing. Brown has driven the franchise to this, and he deserves this.
Today is not the day to make any judgment about Brown’s mental stability or his frame of mind. He might be fine; he might be legitimately troubled in a way we don’t know. I just know the Raiders went out on a limb to acquire him from Pittsburgh, then paid him a rich contract. Since then, Brown has been beyond childish about an issue that more than 2,000 players have coped with: wearing only safety-approved helmets in accord with a $60-million initiative in 2016 to ensure that every player wear a helmet that has been approved by a joint NFL/NFLPA testing process. Every team has 63 active and practice-squad players. So 2,015 players (some of whom might be ticked off about it) will start the season wearing approved helmets. One wants to wear a non-approved—and relatively unsafe—helmet. That one is Brown.
The NFL and NFLPA are not softening on this. They can’t. Last season was the first the NFL mandated that players wear only the approved helmets, with the proviso that veterans who wore other helmets would have a one-season grandfathering of the rule so they could wear unapproved helmets in 2018. About 33 players, including Brown, took advantage of the grandfather clause and wore unapproved helmets last year. This may be an outlier, but preseason and regular-season concussions fell from 281 in 2017 to 214 in 2018, a decline of 23.8 percent. Addressing head trauma is the hottest-button issue in football today. The last thing, then, that the NFL will do is to start making exceptions for players, or to allow players to sign waivers to wear unsafe helmets. Where would that stop? And what would happen if Brown signed a waiver, played with the unsafe helmet, and was diagnosed with a brain disorder at 45? Would the public sympathize with the league or Brown? And the courts? It’s not morally right for the sport with an issue as explosive as head trauma to start making exceptions.
On Monday, I met with rookie Raiders GM Mayock in his office at Raider camp. The Raiders thought the Brown issue had been quashed, and he’d abide by whatever ruling an independent arbiter made on whether he could wear his obsolete Schutt Air Advantage helmet. Though Brown had been a headache to that point, Mayock told me: “Unfortunately there is a sliding scale—the more talent a guy has, the more opportunities he’s going to get. But in the case of Antonio, Jon [Gruden] and I both had the advantage of being in the media and seeing Brown up-close over the years and seeing him practice as hard as anyone we’ve seen. We felt like and still feel like when he’s on the field he’s the best receiver in football. We support him and we’re behind him.”
Then Brown, late Monday, lost his grievance to be able to wear his old Schutt helmet; the NFL argued that a clause in the rules that said players could not wear helmets more than 10 years old—which Brown’s was—automatically disqualified the helmet from further use. The arbitrator agreed. Brown thought if he found any Schutt helmet that was less than 10 years old he’d be able to wear that going forward, but in midweek the league ruled that even the later model of the Schutt Air Advantage (discontinued in 2014) that Brown wanted to wear didn’t pass the testing process. So Brown would have to wear one of the NFL/NFLPA-approved helmets.
On Sunday, Brown was absent from camp. Mayock stood in front of writers at Raider camp and issued a terse 39-second statement that made it clear the organization has had enough. “He’s upset about the helmet issue,” Mayock said. “We have supported that. At this point we’ve pretty much exhausted all avenues of relief. So from our perspective it’s time for him to be all in or all out. We’re hoping he’s back soon. We’ve got 89 guys busting their tails. We’re really excited about where this franchise is going and we hope AB will be a big part of it starting week one against Denver. End of story. No questions.”
Mayock is pissed off. Gruden is pissed off. Maybe they can scotch-tape this together and Brown will pout a little and find a helmet that he’d tolerate; I suppose if he does and reports in the next couple of days, they’ve got to try to make it work. But when is the next time Mount Antonio’s going to blow? Make no mistake—it’ll happen. How many things did Mike Tomlin tamp down in Pittsburgh that we didn’t know about? It got to the point that a top-three receiver in football just wasn’t worth the constant BS that Brown brings to a team. So whatever the financial cost—and though the Raiders paid Brown only a $1-million signing bonus, he and agent Drew Rosenhaus would file a grievance to get the guaranteed money in the new contract—the tightrope Gruden will have to walk just isn’t worth it unless Brown surrenders right now.
For more, read the rest of this week’s Football Morning in America