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Antonio Brown and the Specter of CTE

There were playoff spots, league records, and all sorts of jobs on the line during the NFL’s penultimate weekend of the regular season. But the lasting image to come out of it was a shirtless man who appeared to be losing his mind.

During a game against the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who only recently returned to the team after serving a three-game suspension for submitting a fake vaccine card to team officials, suddenly became agitated. As fellow wide receiver Mike Evans attempted to calm him down, Brown took off his jersey and pads and threw them into the stands, then removed his shirt and threw that into the stands before jogging off the field. (For his part, Brown claimed the whole thing was about an ankle injury. This is not how athletes typically handle ankle injuries.)

Antonio Brown has a meltdown at the hand of the #Jets and #BraxtonBerrios pic.twitter.com/RGhSYpyrOu

Following the incident, Brown hitched a ride home from an infamous Instagram limo driver, which is a weird phrase to type.

Coach Bruce Arians said immediately after the game that Brown was “no longer a Buc” (though he hasn’t yet been formally released from the team), and there’s a very real possibility that his NFL career is over. But the image of Brown waving his jersey in the air and having some sort of psychic break on national television will not soon be forgotten.

Brown was once among the greatest wide receivers in the game. He’s a four-time All-Pro, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, and a member of the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team. But over the past five years, his career has fallen apart. At the end of the 2018 season, Brown feuded with Steelers teammate Ben Roethlisberger and requested a trade. This was after he threw patio furniture from his 14th-floor apartment’s window, almost hitting a child. When Brown got the trade he was seeking and ended up on the then-Oakland Raiders, he missed most of training camp because of a frostbite injury he received during a cryotherapy session. He then tried to sue the NFL over the size of his helmet, attempted to fight his team’s general manager, and was ultimately released before playing a game with the team. He signed with the New England Patriots but was cut less than a month later after being accused of sexual assault by a former trainer. He then retired, unretired, retired again, and unretired just long enough to receive an eight-game suspension from the NFL. He returned one last time with Tampa Bay last year, when he was a small but helpful part of the Super Bowl-winning team. But he kept courting trouble. He was involved in attacking a moving-truck driver and earned a trespass warning from a youth football league. Then came this year with the fake vaccine card and the fiasco on Sunday.

It has been a remarkable fall from grace for a man once considered one of the league’s feel-good stories. ​​Brown had issues before he made it to the pros— he was expelled from Florida International University after a run-in with campus security, though that issue, like so many with Brown, was complicated — but since 2016, he has gone from being a mostly agreeable all-timer to a team cancer.

What happened? On the internet, there’s always a theory.

In the 2016 playoffs, Brown suffered a truly monstrous hit at the hands of Vontaze Burfict, one of the most brutal football players ever. It left him with a serious concussion, and he missed the following week’s game. Brown also sustained a crushing helmet-to-helmet blow from the Cincinnati Bengals’ George Llhka a year later and another big hit at the hands of Burfict about a year after that, just as his behavior was starting to become more unpredictable.

Some have been explicit about the idea that Brown’s personality changed as a direct result of these incidents.

Which leads us to Sunday. For all the mockery of Brown’s meltdown, there is a widespread but often unspoken understanding: Something hasn’t been right with him for a while, and the erratic behavior does seem to track with those hits and concussions. Even Brady, who is not known for suffering fools when he’s trying to win a championship, struck a note of sympathy and concern. “It’s obviously a difficult situation,” the QB said. “We all love him and care about him deeply … I think everyone should be compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things.” Brown’s situation has drawn comparisons to former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, a supremely talented wide receiver whose career dissolved amid a constant string of on-field and off-field incidents more than a decade ago. He died in an automobile accident during a domestic dispute in 2009 and was discovered to have had “severe” chronic traumatic encephalopathy — the degenerative brain condition associated with repeated hits to the head, which many NFL players have suffered from — during his autopsy. Maybe CTE isn’t to blame for Brown’s turbulence. Yet watching his behavior, not just on Sunday but really over the past few years, you couldn’t help but wonder — and worry for the future of Brown and other players.

That’s bad news for the NFL. The league had seemed to weather the worst of the scrutiny it drew several years ago, when the true toll of playing football became clear to the public. The NFL is about to complete one of the most successful seasons in its history. Its television ratings have been record-breaking, its schedule during a pandemic has gone off mostly without a hitch, and almost all its highest-profile players and teams will be involved in what promises to be one of the most compelling playoff brackets in years. And the two biggest problems for the league over the past half-decade — CTE and the political maelstrom around Colin Kaepernick — seems to have faded. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been able to keep the focus on the field, and when he does that, everybody makes so, so much money.

And while there is some question of just how connected CTE and concussions truly are, it is undeniable that the reality of what this brutal game does to the men who play it remains the most worrisome issue for the league in the long term. (It was just April when a former player shot and killed six people, and himself, and was then discovered to have suffered from CTE.) While those dumb John Madden obit Tweets everybody dunked on over the weekend were ridiculous, the premise behind them — that a major part of football’s appeal lies in violence — wasn’t inherently wrong. That appeal is why the league has managed to withstand so much outrage. Still, it was only six years ago that Will Smith was getting Golden Globe nominations for playing a doctor who accused the NFL of covering up studies showing that its players were in mortal peril. The topic may not be as hot button as it was, but players will continue to become afflicted, sometimes in grotesque fashion — and the game hasn’t become inherently less violent in the last few years.

It’s impossible to know whether Brown’s behavior stems from the punishment he’s taken on the field, just as it’s impossible to know if any player has CTE until after he’s dead. (When it’s too late, of course.) But his behavior has renewed the discussion about big hits and concussions that had been dormant for years — yet was never laid to rest. The specter of CTE has been all but out of sight for a few years. Though it will return. It will, alas, never really go away.

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