What now for Antonio Brown? Answering the biggest questions around his release

ByDan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler ESPN logo
Sunday, September 22, 2019

Antonio Brown has been released by his second NFL team in less than two weeks. The New England Patriots announced Friday they were parting ways with the star wide receiver, whom they signed after he was released by the Oakland Raiders just before Week 1.

Brown has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by two different women since the Patriots signed him, and once new allegations of his behavior toward one of those womensurfaced overnight Thursday, the Patriots decided they'd had enough.

It has been a bizarre saga for Brown since he forced his way out ofPittsburghvia trade during the offseason. His time with the Raiders was marked by controversy over his preferred choice of helmet, the accidental freezing of his feet in a cryotherapy chamber and a public feud with team management over fines for missing work. The Patriots agreed to terms with him hours after his release from Oakland on Sept. 7, but it wasn't long before far more serious controversies began to surface.

The saga continued Sunday morning. Brown took to Twitter saying he won't play in the NFL anymore and he took shots at Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.Brown referred to Kraft's ongoing case in Florida over solicitation charges for allegedly receiving a sex act at a massage parlor and Roethlisberger's four-game suspension in 2010 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy based on a sexual assault accusation.

Brown is under NFL investigation. Here's a look at some of the key facts of the situation as it stands:

Why did the Patriots cut him now?

The Patriots claim they did not know when they signed Brown on Sept. 9 that his former trainer Britney Taylor was planning to file a lawsuit against him alleging sexual assault. She filed that lawsuit a day later, but New England kept him on the team last week, and he played in the team's Week 2 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

This week, a Sports Illustrated story was published that included a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Brown by a different woman. The woman's lawyertold Sports Illustrated on Thursday that Brown had sent her client intimidating and threatening text messages after the story ran, and her attorneys said they shared those texts and that information with league investigators. The Patriots woke up to that news Friday morning and, according to sources, held a series of meetings to determine the best course of action in light of the most recent development and all of the issues that were piling up around Brown.

Coach Bill Belichick, who has control over the composition of the team's roster, walked out of his regular Friday news conference because he didn't want to answer persistent questions about Brown. Several hours later, the Patriots released a short statement that read, "The New England Patriots are releasing Antonio Brown. We appreciate the hard work of many people over the last 11 days, but we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time."

Will the NFL take action against Brown?

The NFL's investigation into Brown's off-field conduct began Monday when league investigators interviewed Taylor, who filed the lawsuit last week accusing Brown of sexual assault. That investigation is ongoing, the NFL announced Friday night. The league has been interviewing other witnesses besides Taylor this week and has been gathering information on all of the accusations against Brown. At this time, the league is not scheduled to interview Brown. Typically, the interview with the player happens at the end of the investigation, after the league has compiled all of its evidence.

Often, the NFL will put a player who is under investigation on the commissioner's exempt list, which keeps him off the field but still allows him to be paid while the investigation is conducted. But the NFL said Friday night that because Brown is currently a free agent, placing him on that list "is not appropriate." If he signs with another team, the league said, "such placement may become appropriate at any time depending on the status of the investigation."

Will he end up being suspended?

To know that, we would have to know more about the league's findings so far and what will be revealed as the investigation continues.

Could he serve the suspension while not signed by a team?

Yes, if Brown were to be suspended, he could technically serve the suspension as a free agent.

Let's say, for example, the league decided to suspend him eight games (pure speculation here, just picking a figure out of the air) and the decision came down today (which it won't). He would be suspended for the next eight weeks, meaning he would be eligible to play in Week 11, even if he didn't sign with another team until a month from now.

Could another team sign him? And will one?

Brown is a free agent and can sign with any team. There's no way to predict or account for the actions of all 32 teams. Realistically, though, any team that signs Brown would almost certainly want to wait until the investigation into him is complete and it knows what discipline, if any, he would be facing.

We can't rule it out, but it would be very surprising if a team signed him while the NFL's investigation is ongoing.

How much money did this whole thing cost the Patriots?

That's going to be a matter for arbitrators and the courts. The one-year contract Brown signed with the Patriots on Sept. 9 included a $9 million signing bonus and $1 million in fully guaranteed 2019 salary.

If a player is on the roster at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, he gets paid for that week, so the Patriots technically would have paid him two game checks worth $62,500 (one-sixteenth of $1 million) each. So he earned $125,000 in salary -- plus a $33,333 per-game roster bonus for the one game he played -- for his time there. Now, the salary was guaranteed, but the Patriots can easily argue that the circumstances that led to his release voided those guarantees and that they don't have to pay them.

The signing bonus is trickier, since NFL contract language that voids guaranteed salary doesn't automatically find a player in default of his signing bonus. Technically, the Patriots haven't paid any of it yet. The first $5 million was due this coming Monday, and the remaining $4 million was deferred until Jan. 15.

New England probably won't want to pay any of that signing bonus, and a league source said the team's way out of it is through a representation warranty clause that says it's a breach of contract if Brown didn't disclose an existing situation that would have prevented his continued availability (that is, if he knew about Taylor's pending lawsuit and didn't tell the Patriots before he signed with them). Another source said the NFL Players Association considers a signing bonus "money earned," regardless of the payment schedule, so any attempt by the Patriots to avoid paying the signing-bonus money probably would result in a grievance filed by Brown and the union.

Part of the NFLPA's job is to push back on teams' attempts to get out of contracts, so any team action that potentially would set a precedent of not paying signing-bonus money probably would result in a fight between the union and the league and/or team. The Raiders, as a general rule, don't include signing-bonus money in their deals, and Brown's was not an exception. So their attempts to void guaranteed salary and recoup the money they spent on him would be less likely to incur a grievance than would the Patriots' effort to escape signing-bonus payments.

And what about salary-cap charges?

Since Brown was released after June 1, the Patriots can split the charge for the signing bonus over the next two years. Add in the $1 million salary for this year and New England's cap charges for Brown would be $5.75 million in 2019 and $4.75 million in 2020. If the team were able to successfully fight to get all of the salary and bonus money back, it would get back this year's $5.75 million as a salary-cap credit in 2020, and the $4.75 million charge for next year would be wiped away.

But let's step back for a second and realize that there are currently three NFL teams carrying dead-money salary-cap charges for Brown in 2019: The Pittsburgh Steelers, who traded him to the Raiders in the spring, are carrying a $21.12 million dead-money charge on their cap for Brown, and the Raiders are carrying a $1,193,627 dead-money charge this year and another $666,667 next year.

Brown was on Oakland's roster as of 4 p.m. ET the Tuesday before the Raiders' Week 1 game, so they're technically on the hook for $860,294 in salary (one-seventeenth of the $14.625 million they were scheduled to pay him in 2019). The rest of the dead money in Oakland is the result of workout bonuses treated as signing bonus for cap purposes. Like the Patriots, the Raiders can (and will) fight to get their money back, and if they do, they'll get cap credits for it in 2020.

Is Brown entitled to termination pay?

He could be. NFL rules allow a player, once in his career, to file for and collect termination pay if he is released by a team. If the player is on that team's roster for Week 1, he is entitled to 100% of his base salary in termination pay. If he is not on the roster for Week 1, he is entitled to 25% of his base salary in termination pay.

Brown was not, technically, on any team's Week 1 roster, since he was released by the Raiders before 4 p.m. ET on the day before the season's first Sunday and not officially signed by the Patriots until two days later. He technically would be entitled to $250,000 (25% of $1 million) in termination pay if he wanted to pursue that. But as with the guaranteed salary, it's all up in the air because of extenuating off-field circumstances that could affect Brown's right to any of his money at all.

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