-By Anna Posbergh
Anna Posbergh is a PhD candidate in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Living with a former collegiate (American) football player means one thing on Sunday nights from August to February: it’s football season. As someone who grew up in a household that rarely ventures outside of watching the Weather Channel and MSNBC, every Monday morning, I read the New York Times breakdown of the past weekend’s games to attempt to intelligently contribute to excited conversations about missed two-point conversions, unbelievable pick-sixes, and situations of outstanding running-back yardage (yes, I asked my partner to read over that last bit to ensure appropriate football language).
Last week’s conversation after NFL week 3 was a bit different though, as the biggest news of the weekend wasn’t a game or a new starting quarterback. Rather, it was the ruckus around Antonio Brown, or “AB,” “retiring” from the NFL. Following the Steelers’ fallen star over the past several weeks has been something of a rollercoaster: from being traded to the Raiders for a third and a fifth-round draft pick, to his requests to be dropped from the Raiders roster, to being picked up by the Patriots within hours, I think it’s safe to say that AB had an unusually eventful few weeks. Despite his doggedness to remain within the NFL organization, it was not meant to be. Following accusations and investigations of AB’s sexual abuse scandal, he announced his departure from the NFL this past weekend after being released from the Patriots. In a series of now-deleted tweets, he called out the hypocrisy of the NFL’s treatment of other players and team owners who have also been investigated and/or suspended for allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. From former teammate Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension in 2006, to Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft’s being arrested and charged with soliciting prostitution, I noticed a glaring unifying factor in the individuals that AB called out: they were mostly all white.
Certainly, it’s not too far of a stretch to assume that, to some extent, AB is calling out the racial discrimination and hypocrisy of the NFL. And his arguments are not off-base. As scholars much brighter than me have argued elsewhere, sport’s exploitation of athletes, especially black athletes, is a recurrent theme at the amateur/collegiate and the professional levels. Marxist sensibilities tell us that this is because these athletes are perceived as cogs in the machine: trained to work as a productive commodity within the NFL operation, and easily replaced when they’ve served their purpose. Extending these arguments through a racial lens brings up memories of Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests and the backlash from it, as I and two of my colleagues discussed back in 2017. An article from the University of Michigan’s school newspaper took a more definitive stance on it in 2018, flat-out calling the NLF ‘racist.’ Issues around the NFL and race has been all the more exacerbated by the Trump conjuncture it falls within, and conservative media outlets demanding to “keep politics out of sport.”
While AB is no Kaepernick, there remains multiple layers to the racial issues undergirding the AB situation. Following AB’s antics over the past year, his recurrent demands of more pay, disagreement with disciplinary actions, and rebuking helmet regulations, a common reaction in the media has been, “AB’s off his rocker.” The media and the NFL have strategically framed AB’s behaviors as acting out and unsportsmanlike, but it is important to remember the devious nature of the NFL and media narratives. There is a fine line to navigate between rebelling against an exploitative and well-oiled machine (e.g. the NFL), and truly destructive obstreperous behavior. Making a fair assessment of AB’s recent behaviors becomes all the trickier when considering the NFL environment in terms of bodily damage, concussions and CTE, the exploitation of athletes, racial divisions in positions played, and the culture of toxic hypermasculinity. When contextualizing the AB scenario, I recurrently arrived at the question, “is AB really off his rocker, did the NFL create a media narrative to perceive him as such, or is AB the product of an exploitative and treacherous corporation?”
Issues around AB are rendered all the more complicated when factoring in the recent allegations and investigation of sexual assault. Particularly in an era of Brett Kavanaughs, Harvey Weinsteins, Larry Nassars, and the man in the Oval office, accusations and survivors of sexual assault must be taken seriously with appropriate consideration to the victim. Navigating these waters is not an easy task, and makes this already difficult situation even more complex when placing it in the NFL culture. AB calling out previous NFL-affiliated individuals investigated for sexual assault or sexual-related allegations does not detract from the fact that these were lenient penalties. Roethlisberger has enjoyed a profitable career as Pittsburgh’s quarterback since 2010 even after two accusations of sexual assault in a single year. Robert Kraft remains the owner of the Patriots despite two first-degree misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. Reuben Foster was claimed by the team from Washington in 2019 on waivers less than 72 hours after being arrested on domestic violence charges and following three arrests in 2018. These three cases of NFL-affiliated individuals continuing to enjoy a life in the NFL, despite serious accusations relating to sexual assault and abuse, exemplifies the ongoing issue of male privilege, corruption, and toxic masculinity in the NFL.
When we consider the intersections of gender, race, capitalism, McDonaldization, and football, we arrive at the issues surrounding Antonio Brown. Moreover, it brings us to the core question then, of who is really at fault here, and what side do we take? Is AB another victim of the NFL’s exploitative and dehumanizing protocols, or is he a loose cannon who has finally been brought to justice with the current sexual abuse investigation? Is he both? And perhaps the more chilling question: who’s next?