I watched the NFL on CBS this Sunday because I knew they had no choice but to talk about Antonio Brown. Brown was sued earlier this week by a former trainer, Britney Taylor, who said that Brown sexually assaulted and raped her when she worked for him. The day before, Brown had been signed by the New England Patriots, an AFC team, and the Patriots were due to play the Miami Dolphins, another AFC team, and Brown was going to start. That meant CBS, the network that broadcasts AFC games, would have to say something, no matter how uncomfortable it made them.
Within a few minutes, studio host James Brown got to the unavoidable. He looked into the camera and said: “Meanwhile, in Miami, Antonio Brown will suit up for his new, new team as the defending champion Patriots take on the Dolphins today. The culmination of another tumultuous week in the life of the mercurial wide receiver.”
Mercurial, I thought, was not the word I would have used.
From there, the broadcast went through a straightforward wrap-up of the week’s events, showed a clip of Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, saying “these allegations are false, he denies every one of them,” then tossed to the network’s lead NFL reporter, Jason La Canfora, who delivered the news that the NFL investigation “has just begun.” There was a brief and worthless interview with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, then viewers returned to James Brown, who told viewers: “Well, as Jason indicated earlier, there is nothing new to report regarding the lawsuit, so there’s no question it will be totally inappropriate for us to comment on anything regarding Antonio other than on the field.
“And with that in mind, it’s time now to welcome in my colleagues, Phil Simms, coach Bill Cowher, Nate Burleson, and Boomer Esiason. The Antonio Brown era with the Patriots is now underway.”
Just like that, the matter is done. We cut to a panel of analysts ready to talk about Brown through the lens of football. Would he have good chemistry with Tom Brady? How many snaps would he play? Would it be a happy homecoming for Brown in his hometown of South Florida?
Sports media isn’t driven by reporters. It’s driven by analysts, because that’s what fills the airwaves, the newspaper columns, and the internet, and because there’s not usually all that much to actually report. As presently constructed, the analyst has two ways to talk about players accused of violence: A quick recap of the facts of the case before getting back to football, or debating whether this player should be playing. Neither of those lends themselves to much in the way of enlightening or meaningful conversation, though, because neither is about the person who says they were hurt, in this case Taylor. There is no discussion of what she needs, or how this has affected her, or what it means to her. The discussion always will be about Brown.
Taylor, in either of these conversations, isn’t even a person. She’s a name on a piece of paper, an “accuser,” a “situation” or a “distraction,” a person so devoid of her own humanity that, if you were just randomly tuning into a conversation about her and the Brown lawsuit, you might never know what Brown is actually accused of.
There is a third type of conversation, and I don’t know how it ends. It’s one about how sports could put, side-by-side with Brown’s, Taylor’s story, and then reflect on how uncomfortable that surely would make all of us feel.
It can be difficult to talk about athletes within a framework of power because they are in America an exploited workforce. They aren’t paid in high school. They aren’t paid in college, despite their work bringing billions into athletic departments and the NCAA. Even as professionals, except for a handful of superstars, their careers are short, their bodies left battered, and their job security is tenuous at best. Especially in the NFL, where contracts are not guaranteed.
But when a person accuses a player of violence, it is the player who suddenly has the power because the billionaire team owners and multimillionaire executives will back them, then filter their support to chosen reporters, all while hordes of fans do the same out of team loyalty. On Sunday, Brown didn’t say anything to reporters. He didn’t have to. There were the pundits and announcers, lauding praise on him for his football abilities. There were the fans, cheering with glee. After the game came the clips packages, the analyses, and columns weighing in on Brown’s performance on the field. They all did the work of telling Brown’s narrative for Brown. All he had to do was show up.
In Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, essayist Rebecca Solnit opens one paragraph with the observation, “Who gets to be the subject of the story is an immensely political question” and she closes it by noting, “We’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and at whom our compassion and interest should be directed.” This is preceded by various examples Solnit gives of how sympathy in America almost immediately goes to the man. Her final example is the well-worn Onion headline: “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.”
On Sunday, as I kept watching football, I thought about why Solnit reached for that headline to make her point. I was watching to see whether we’d hear Taylor’s story, knowing I was asking a question to which I already knew the answer (no). Some of this was due to timing; Taylor couldn’t meet with the NFL last week. Some of this was due to the way America’s courts work; no good lawyer would advise a client to talk to the press after filing a lawsuit, just let the complaint speak for itself. Some of this was due to the old rules of news: To talk about Taylor’s story, you’d have to go over the complaint again, since it’s been her only statement on the matter, but no reporter wants to be accused of repeating themselves or delivering old news.
But even if those factors could change, they would not alter that American athletics is set up to tell the stories of men. The Sunday pregame panels are dominated by men. The game announcers are dominated by men. The postgame analysis is mostly done by men. The columns and game stories are mostly written by men. The leagues are mostly run by men. The team owners are almost all men. These are men telling stories about men for other men. And if adding a few women to the gang were the easy fix, then WNBA players wouldn’t still be flying commercial, the women’s national soccer team wouldn’t be suing for equal pay, and I wouldn’t get emails with subject lines like “Deadspin needs fewer women writers.” Institutions do not like to change.
Then add in that every league is designed to generate content, all positive, around the clock about itself. There are networks to fill, websites to populate, and Twitter feeds that need tweeting. So they get filled with highlights of Brown, updates on his stats, analysis on what Brown means for fantasy football teams, added analysis of what Brown means for his actual football team, whatever Brown has said lately on social media, or whatever one of the many people working for Brown, his agent, have to say in their client’s defense.
It’s hard to think of an American institution better designed than sports to shunt a woman to the side in her own story. On Sunday, Taylor was a reason Brown might not play football. She was something for pundits to react to. And the pundits’ favorite question, in 2019, is Should this player be playing?
In her complaint, filed in federal court in South Florida, Taylor outlines the way her life changed since the night she says Brown raped her. Taylor says initially she feared getting pregnant or having a sexually transmitted disease. Then she grew depressed, started having anxiety attacks, and struggled going to work, according to the court document. When Taylor told her fiancé what happened, it put a strain on their relationship.
“Brown devastated her sense of self, made her question her worth as a woman and human being,” her complaint said, “and caused her to question whom she could trust.”
She eventually told a leader at her church, per her lawsuit, who recommended she start therapy and get a lawyer.
(In her complaint, Taylor asks for damages. Brown’s camp already is feeding information to media to portray Taylor as just another woman out for cash—but believing that requires ignoring that the entire point of civil court is acknowledging a wrong, and then compensating the wronged party through money. Money is, in America, how people are made whole and this is largely understood as fine and normal, unless the person asking for money is a woman. Only then is a person filing a civil lawsuit a gold-digger.)
At no point in her complaint does Taylor ask Brown to stop playing football. She doesn’t ask for that in the statement released through her lawyer. That hasn’t stopped analysts from talking about that anyway. Should Brown play? Should Brown sit? Should Brown be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, a device that makes players the league doesn’t want you to think about magically disappear, with pay? I can go over the merits of sitting him or playing him in my head, but they always sound the same: A duel between what would be the best public relations for the Patriots (sit him) and the best legal move for the Patriots (play him).
The whole suspension debate is a performance that centers, not only on Brown, but the cabal of mostly old, always rich, mostly white, and nearly always men who have done nothing to earn or deserve our attention on, let alone power over issues like sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence. Yes, the American criminal justice system is broken, leaving us with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But the solution isn’t to look at the likes of Jerry Jones, Stephen Ross, and Dan Snyder and decide these are the men with the answers. And certainly not Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, who counts the president accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault among his longtime friends.
Talking about suspensions and punishments and cutting players does serve one purpose. It stops all the more uncomfortable conversations from happening.
The #MeToo movement never really hit sports. Yes, there were some stories about sexual harassment and domestic violence while working for various leagues and teams. But that tipping point, as with Hollywood and entertainment, where the vastness of the problem began to become visible—that sense that, every day, more women’s stories would be told, and they would involve another man you had idolized, and perhaps the daily pain of reading these stories was just a drop of the pain women feel every damn day—never materialized. Somehow, in sports, misogyny is still something to be contained, something you can manage away with enough PR and donations and suspensions.
Fans come to sports to feel good, but to commit to talking about violence against women is to realize that you are going to feel bad. The numbers are horrifying. The problem so vast it almost surely includes someone you love, and quite possibly you. To talk about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence in sports is to realize how impossibly stacked the deck is against any person who comes forward. They will get no reward for their honesty and almost surely be destroyed, every detail of their life leaked, then turned against them, their sense of a private life obliterated. It’s to think about what role the media plays, but also the role fans play—knowing every star has millions of people prepared to cheer for him and defend him no matter what is said, like they did for Brown on Sunday. It’s having to think about the role you play, and the one I do too. I have no idea how this conversation in sports would end. I only know that it still has not begun.