All-world NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown has a young child named Autonomy. People with strong feelings about autonomy don’t necessarily get along well in the autocratic, top-down world of the National Football League. Free thinkers like to bend. In the NFL, they tend to break. But Antonio Brown, over the course of a wild weekend, managed to crack the Shield: He got himself released from his contract with the disorganized, ramshackle franchise that is the Oakland Raiders and was immediately signed by the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. Yes, it could cost him as much as $21 million, but freedom comes with a price in this league, and Antonio Brown was willing to pay it. The price of his freedom, as we’ll see, involved much more than money.
In order to control his own destiny, Brown employed a strategic mode of behavior over the weekend that was literally digital vs. the Raiders’ analog. It involved antics that had journalists speculating about Brown being bipolar or even suffering from the concussion syndrome known as CTE. Yet, in retrospect, Brown conducted a master class on using the Internet to humble the lumbering, multibillion-dollar dinosaurs that masquerade as NFL franchises.
First, he posted on Instagram a letter from Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock saying that he was being fined for missing practices. This in and of itself was a break from NFL protocol, as these missives are usually treated with a near-furtive secrecy. Then he uploaded a “homemade” video onto YouTube that has to be seen to be believed. As slick as any ad from Nike, the video includes an illegally taped phone call with coach Jon Gruden that plays underneath a series of black and white images of Brown. Gruden is heard saying to Brown, “Please stop this shit and just play football.” Brown responds, “I’m more than a football player, man. I’m a person.” In the video’s description, Brown wrote: “I am Antonio Brown, the person, who paved a way for himself to be in charge of his own life. Free me!”
Former NFL player Chris Long tweeted, “Players used to sit on wooden stools and answer generic football questions for the local news. Antonio Brown wiretaps his coach and produces an artistic short film on his personal YouTube channel. This shit escalated quickly.”
It has been reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortenson that he was working with experts to make all of this happen. He said, “Antonio Brown during the week actually sought advice from social media consultants on how he could accelerate his release from the Raiders.”
Presidential campaigns could learn something from the rollout of this social media campaign and attendant provocations. After the release of the video, which Gruden initially attempted to laugh off—as opposed to bringing charges for illegal wiretapping—the team fined Brown for “conduct unbecoming to the team.” This is the “code red” of NFL fines. It meant that Brown’s money, namely his $30 million signing bonus, was no longer guaranteed. He would effectively be playing week to week.
Somewhere in the middle of this, Brown also got into a physical confrontation with Mayock in which he may or may not have called the general manager a “cracker.” This led to the coup de grâce: Brown putting out an Instagram post that read, “You are going to piss a lot of people off when you start doing what’s best for you.” He then wrote, “I have worked my whole life to prove that the system is blind to see talent like mines. Now that everyone sees it, they want me to conform to that same system that has failed me all those years. I’m not mad at anyone. I’m just asking for the freedom to prove them all wrong. Release me @raiders #NOMore #theyputblindersonahorseforareason #NoMoreFake”
The Raiders, backed into a corner hours before the start of the season, granted his wish and he was released. Brown, of course, recorded and posted his reaction, which involved him jumping with joy and saying over and over, “I’m free.”
After what felt like mere seconds as a free agent, Brown was signed by the Evil Empire, the New England Patriots. Football observers were left with whiplash.
Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders, but that was not where he would have chosen to live, play, and raise his family. Yet, in the NFL, there are very few options if you find yourself in a similar situation. Try to express where you want to play or live, and you run right into “the shield”: the power of the white billionaires who control the league and lives of the comparatively powerless players, who are overwhelmingly black.
NFL players have very little time in the spotlight to earn their money and play the game before it physically grinds them to a halt. As is often remarked, the NBA is a players’ league, where they have a great deal of control over their destinies. The NFL is not. Antonio Brown, through the force of his will, namely his willingness to piss everyone off, sacrifice his public reputation, and even have people question his sanity, was going to be free. He would be autonomous in a league that demands compliance. That he was successful in these efforts should scare every front-office cigar chomper and Napoleonic head coach. The NFL is analog, and Antonio Brown went digital. And Antonio Brown won.