There was a time — August 2019, to be exact, but it feels like forever ago — when a player who had problems with his organization would follow a familiar pattern: the player would throw a little passive-aggressive shade in interviews while his agent/family member would leak much more dire veiled threats to the media. Everyone knew the rules of the game; everyone understood the steps in the dance.
In 10 days, Antonio Brown obliterated all that … and completely upended player-team relations for a generation. Chaos sells, and the freshly released AB is crop-dusting it all over the NFL landscape. [Update: chaos works. AB’s now a Patriot.]
You know you’re in strange territory when a star receiver freeze-burning off the soles of his feet is only about the fifth-weirdest turn of a story. Brown has dominated headlines for the last week with an unending stream of chaos, from helmet disputes to posting fine notices to literal fights with management to apologies to secretly recorded conversations to weird indie-film videos to — as of Saturday morning — an apparent desire to be released. Three hours later, he got his wish.
And even though he’s no longer with Oakland, Brown is still spreading the chaos:
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth”— AB (@AB84) September 7, 2019
How fast is the AB story changing? This column had to be updated three times because of breaking news while I was in the middle of writing it. You can’t even process one turn in the whole bizarre story before another one comes snowballing in, and if that reminds you of another state of play in our country right now, sit tight. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Bill Belichick notwithstanding, the days of “do-your-job” athletes are over. Some athletes have always understood that they were a brand, even before the concept of #branding existed. Deion Sanders built a career on it. Jim McMahon turned himself into a Chicago legend that way. Terrell Owens sabotaged his own Hall of Fame chances — and his induction — thanks to his devotion to the Church of T.O.
But we’re in a new world now, a world where media beef’s a part of every aspiring pop star’s career to-do list, a world where an entertainer’s every utterance can go from fingertips to a million phones in an instant. It’s a world where Brown can wake up Saturday morning, type in “release me @Raiders” on Instagram right around 9 a.m. Eastern, push send, and sit back and watch the roiling havoc ensue. And it always does.
The old maxim that all publicity is good publicity doesn’t really apply anymore, not in an era of cancel culture. But if you’re good enough, if you’re talented enough, then yes, all publicity can spin into good publicity. This is the space Brown occupies now, and from one perspective, it’s an enviable one — he can make literally any decree, any demand, and he might just get away with it. The Raiders have cut Brown, yes, but do you really think he’s going to stay unemployed for very long? Shoot, he might just be catching passes in the Super Bowl for the Patriots at this rate. [Update: Called it.]
In that way — settle in, we’re hitting liftoff velocity from planet Stick To Sports —Brown is mirroring the public persona of President Trump. Brown’s undeniable talent is the equivalent of Trump’s base: an unshakable, indisputable fact that makes both men impossible to ignore or disregard, no matter how far they deviate from The Way We’ve Always Done Things.
Railing at “unfair” criticism —> tweeting about enemies, real and perceived —> staging an adoring rally —> railing about helmet rules —> posting a team notice of fines —> releasing a black-and-white art film —> ask for release on social media —> watch as request is granted. Chaos following chaos, without giving the rest of us a chance to breathe; the only difference is the scope. (Well, that, and the fact that Antonio Brown can’t really get us into wars, trade or otherwise.)
You can roll your eyes. You can turn away in disgust. You can complain that this isn’t the way things used to be back in the good old days. But you can’t deny that it works. Chaos is a hell of a weapon as long as you’re the one sowing it.
Plus, cast your mind forward a bit. You know young artists are seeing how, say, a Cardi B-Nikki Minaj feud boosted both artists’ careers. You know young politicians are seeing how Trump’s take-no-prisoners, it’s-someone-else’s-fault attitude carried him from a reality show to the White House. And you know young athletes are seeing how Brown played the Raiders like an orchestra, pushing and pulling and taunting and relenting, dancing on the edge of suspension and then strolling into the end zone. And now that Brown’s learned where the line is, well, the next player will push it just a little ... bit ... further.
The next Antonio Brown — the next player to wage a multimedia brand-building assault — might be in the NFL right now, lining up production companies and social media gurus for a future PR campaign. Or he might be lurking in the college ranks, watching and taking notes as he piles up game-changing highlights. Or he might even still be in high school, dominating his county every Friday night and dreaming of a day when he’ll go toe-to-toe with the NFL establishment.
Old-school fans, media and coaches see someone like Brown as a distraction. But the next generation’s going to see him as an inspiration. I’d say “just watch,” but there’s no way any of us are turning away, no matter what. That’s the genius of chaos.
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