In the 1977, Paul Newman classic Slap Shot, a film about a down-and-out hockey team with a penchant for extreme violence, a player takes off all his clothes on the ice, stripping while lazily skating around. People are predictably outraged, but he is holding up a mirror to the violence of his sport and asking why his naked body is out of bounds but bludgeoning another human being is not.
An echo of this scene played out in the middle of a NFL game Sunday, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown took off his jersey, undershirt, shoulder pads, and gloves, and tossed them into the crowd before leaving the gladiatorial arena shirtless and smiling. Yet, unlike the Slap Shot scenario, Brown wasn’t trying to hold a mirror up to his sport. He is the mirror.
We don’t know what motivated his actions, but Brown and his breakdown are a brutal reflection of a the league’s moral bankruptcy. It tells us that any excuse will be made for players as long as they can still contribute on the field. A player can exhibit numerous signs of psychological or medical trauma, yet that will be ignored by an army of enablers if he can help a team win. This calculation is why Brown’s volatility burst into public notice. NFL announcers scolded Brown instead of asking why he was in a uniform in the first place.
His presence on the field also speaks to what it actually takes to torpedo one’s career. Brown over the last three years has been accused of sexual assault twice, assault upon a delivery driver, and forging a vaccination card. He has spoken about his own psychological issues. Yet in the face of that, all his coach Bruce Arians would say as recently as this past week was, “I could give a [expletive] what [critics] think.… The only thing I care about is this football team and what’s best for us.” Not what’s best for Brown—what’s best for “us” and “us” is a multibillion-dollar NFL team trying to get back to the Super Bowl.
There is also room to blame all-world quarterback Tom Brady, who has now vouched for Brown to two separate organizations, even offering to let Brown live in his house so he could keep tabs on him and his behavior. Brady said after Brown’s strip-down meltdown, “I think we all want him to just—I think everybody should find, hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs it. We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him be at his best, and unfortunately it won’t be with our team.”
Brady sounds compassionate, but his actions toward Brown have been geared toward getting him on a football field. It has been less about getting Brown the help he needs and more about Brady’s looking to extend his own seemingly endless career by making sure he has one of the game’s great receivers in his lineup. Also, as Adam Kilgore wrote in The Washington Post, Brady “showed little compassion and empathy toward the women who accused Brown, or the employees whom Brown stiffed, or the people whom he threatened violence against. If Brady wanted Brown to get the mental health help he needed, playing in the NFL didn’t need to be part of it. But Brown could help Brady win football games, and that took priority.”
Brown’s career, despite his being only 33, is assuredly over. All of his transgressions could be forgiven. But quitting on your team in the middle of a game? That violates the number-one rule in the minds of NFL owners as surely as taking a knee during the national anthem. What both of these disparate seemingly incomparable actions have in common is that they push back against the obedience demanded in the racialized labor discipline that franchise owners feel the need to impose on their workforce. Do what you want off the field—but, between the lines, the operative word is “control.” Brown cannot be controlled by Brady, Arians, or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. That is proving to be his greatest sin, and it will make him unemployable. The league prioritizes this discipline above all else, and Brown’s meltdown made it clear for all to see.