Antonio Brown vs. Ben Roethlisberger: A Microcosm of Differential Treatment in the NFL

The NFL has a problem. It is something that has recently been brought to light by the Antonio Brown debacle. Some would say he smartly orchestrated a trade by to get off of the Pittsburgh Steelers after his relationship went sour. Others say he revealed himself as the selfish diva he has been the entire time. There is probably some truth to both sides. What is less focused on is just how quickly people turned on Brown.

What did he do exactly? Call out teammates on social media? He didn’t commit any crimes. He didn’t get caught doing drugs or using performance-enhancing substances. Other players have done worse. Other players including Brown’s former quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Unlike Brown, Roethlisberger has gotten a pass and flown under the radar for his behavior. This has happened with many NFL quarterbacks. It could be a positional difference. Or, it could be a color difference. Most quarterbacks are white, while most wide receivers are black.

Differential Treatment in the NFL: Antonio Brown vs. Ben Roethlisberger

From Role Model to Diva

After the firestorm of Brown’s recent social media activity, he is suddenly a villain. He now a diva, a locker room cancer. Jack Del Rio, the former head coach of Brown’s new team, the Oakland Raiders has even come out and said that Brown will be “a problem.”

It is easy to forget, that until recently, Brown was a model citizen in the NFL. He was frequently called the hardest worker in the league. A Steelers beat writer went as far as writing an entire article praising Brown back in 2017, emphasizing Brown’s squeaky-clean behavior saying, “He hasn’t gotten in fights in nightclubs, been caught doing drugs or possessing a weapon. We haven’t heard so much as a peep over a traffic violation, or jaywalking.”

The script has completely flipped though, as compiled in this tweet:

I’ll just leave this here. #Raiders

— Raider Posts (@RaiderPosts) April 13, 2019

And though it may seem like it, this didn’t all happen at once. In 2017, there were reports of Brown “pouting” after a DeAngelo Williams touchdown that didn’t go to him. This came after Brown’s “locker room incident,” where he livestreamed Tomlin badmouthing the Patriots. In other words, the media has been trying to take jabs at Brown for years for the smallest thing possible. Oh yeah, and the one who started the pouting rumors? None other than Roethlisberger himself.

Quarterback to Wide Receiver Thing?

The main reason Brown is now a diva seems to be because of his criticism of Steelers players over social media. However, as seen above, Roethlisberger and other quarterbacks have been doing this for years. Are quarterbacks being held to different standards? After all, they are the leaders of the team.

But these standards seem to be lower rather than higher. To some, quarterbacks’ criticism of players is a form of “tough love” to motivate them to perform, but this is something that is probably better done in private. It should carry the same risk of criticism that players like Brown receive.

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And if Roethlisberger really wants to go after Brown, he isn’t exactly the model citizen himself. Roethlisberger has multiple rape and sexual misconduct charges against him. He settled the charges out of court, but unless people really looked, there wasn’t much of a peep about it from the media.

Admittedly, the NFL has gotten more strict with discipline in recent years, but players like Ezekiel Elliott have been suspended multiple games after not even being charged for a crime.

Even Roethlisberger’s motorcycle incident was only slightly criticized back in 2007. Imagine if the same thing happened to Brown. What would have been said? Irresponsible. Not a team player.

More Examples

Tom Brady is passionate. He yells at teammates all the time. In fact, he even had a shouting match with his offensive coordinator, which led to the headline: “Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady fired up on Patriots sideline.” Does Brady get a pass for being one of the greatest all-time to play the game? Maybe, but the divide shouldn’t be this wide.

But why isn’t Brown seen as passionate, or fired up? Instead, when he has similar incidents as Brady, he gets a different headline: “Steelers’ Antonio Brown loses cool on the sideline during Chiefs game.” The article also mentions how Roethlisberger “admonished” him for doing so.

And what about another top quarterback, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers? He frequently bashes teammates, but according to the media, just has high standards. He once told reporters after a game that a squirrel was more exciting than the team. Worse yet, he went on record once to call his teammates’ performance at practice “piss poor.”

Rodgers is starting to get some criticism coming his way – but what did it take? Rodgers has been acting like this for years and getting away with it. Brown has a few incidents and suddenly he’s a bad teammate?

Deeper Issues in Play

Maybe it isn’t necessarily as black and white as the Brown is a wide receiver and Roethlisberger is a quarterback. Maybe the issue is that one is black, and the other is white. The facts are that most wide receivers are black and most quarterbacks are white. Rodgers, Brady, and Roethlisberger are no exceptions. But Cam Newton is.

Newton has dealt with almost constant criticism in his career. Sure, some of it is deserved, but unlike his white counterparts, he doesn’t catch a break with even the smallest misstep. A great comparison between Newton and Rodgers can be seen here:

Can we just stop it with the criticism over @CameronNewton‘s celebrations? #SB50

— Rob Tornoe (@RobTornoe) February 4, 2016

This cartoon came right after the 2015 season, where Newton led his team to a 15-1 regular season record and took home MVP honors. Still he was constantly ripped by the media for… dancing with his teammates after touchdowns. After his Super Bowl loss, he walked out of the press conference after being questioned about not trying hard enough to recover a fumble.

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Wes Welker Incident

While there aren’t many black NFL quarterbacks, there are even fewer white NFL wide receivers. However, one of the most known white wide receivers is Wes Welker. Welker made a name for himself catching passes from all-time greats like Brady and Peyton Manning.

Something that isn’t really talked about was the incident that led up to his four-game suspension in 2014. Welker was seen acting a bit sporadic during the Kentucky Derby, giving random strangers one-hundred-dollar bills. It was rumored he was on Molly or ecstasy. He was later suspended for four games after amphetamines came up in his system as a result of the drugs.

Basically, Welker got caught doing drugs. But still, he escaped basically any negative press. Most just wrote factually about the suspension, and Welker’s “vehement denial” of taking Molly or any performance-enhancing substances. Others even made light of the situation, emphasizing what “great time” Welker had at the Kentucky Derby.

Maybe Welker gets a pass for being a key piece of several prolific offenses. But why don’t Newton, or Brown enjoy these same privileges? Why isn’t Welker a bad teammate for not being available to play to help his team? Why don’t people call him out for being selfish and getting himself suspended? Probably because he is white.

Changing the Narrative

More than ever, this differential treatment among NFL players has the opportunity to change. The media may still be the biggest and loudest voice, but it isn’t the only voice anymore. Social media got Brown the attention he needed to make a scene to get out of Pittsburgh. Sure, it was a double-edged sword that also contributed to his change in perception amongst many, but this same platform also gives power to the players and the fans.

It is another viewpoint, and fans are able to challenge what the media puts out there and have a say in shaping the narrative. Of course, there is some bias. Most NFL fans who back Antonio Brown on social media are fans of his new team, the Oakland Raiders. Most of the biggest bashers are Steelers fans. But there are also fans of 30 other teams who can contribute to pulling the narrative one way or another.

Fans of the game need to start doing their own analysis, their own comparing and contrasting. It is time to look at the different standards players are being held to, and not accept it. They need to push back and use their voices to shift the story. Then maybe we won’t see situations like what happened this offseason.

Players Have a Say

But it is also up to the players. It is a difficult situation for Steelers team members now to pick a side. Everyone is quiet now, likely not wanting to create a rift in the locker room. Antonio Brown may be gone, but Roethlisberger is still there, and he is still the veteran leader of the team. It isn’t very smart for anyone to come out against him while they are still on the team.

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However, some former players have criticized him, leading to a small back and forth that had some current players come to Roethlisberger’s defense. Recently, Joey Porter spoke out against Roethlisberger, acknowledging his apology, but saying it came too late. Porter was part of the Steelers organization for years, so his voice carries weight. But he is only speaking out now that he isn’t with the team anymore.

Perhaps that is one thing many quarterbacks have mastered better than wide receivers. They know they are the leaders, so they at least say the right thing when cameras are in front of them.

It’s easy for the media to publish and spin a spoken apology from Roethlisberger. Now he gets to be the good teammate. He’s the guy who feels remorse for having a hand in fracturing the relationship with the player who helped him win many games.

Brown, on the other hand, continued his tirade on social media long after the trade went down. Even some of his backers, who thought that it was a show to make noise started to wonder if maybe the other side had a point. That’s not to say that Brown should give a forced apology, but there is a point where he needs to be aware of how he is contributing to the narrative he is now trying to fight.

Last Word on Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and Differential Treatment in the NFL

Antonio Brown and Roethlisberger are an excellent microcosm of differential treatment in the NFL. The fact that they were both teammates makes their case even more interesting. Brown seems to blame Roethlisberger as a big reason for his falling out with the Steelers organization. Yet, most of the media has taken Roethlisberger’s side. This is despite the fact that Roethlisberger has a track record of questionable behavior, whereas Brown was seen as a model citizen in the NFL not too long ago.

On one hand, it seems like a quarterback versus wide receiver issue, but when looked at deeper, there seems to be a racial component to it as well. Quarterbacks like Brady and Rodgers are called “passionate” and “competitors” while Newton is bashed for much less. Welker was able to keep his clean reputation even after being caught and suspended for using illicit substances.

The media plays a big part in this picture, but fans and players are gaining more power to shape the narrative. Social media gives more people a voice to combat stories or back players. However, it is still dangerous, as tirades on sites like Twitter also give fuel to add the fire against players like Antonio Brown.

Main photo: Embed from Getty Images

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