How Much Should an NFL Player’s Character Play into Their Legacy?

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Antonio Brown has made his mark on the NFL over the course of his entire career. With 11,207 receiving yards in nine seasons, he’s proven to be one of the most dangerous receiving threats in NFL history, which is made more amazing by the fact that he was a sixth-round draft pick. Based on performance alone, should he retire tomorrow, there’s considerable argument that he could make the Hall of Fame, and that he’s the best wide receiver the Pittsburgh Steelers have had in their rich history. This makes it all the more troubling—specifically for Steelers fans—considering the present circumstances, which has Brown and the team heading into an ugly divorce.

The 2018 season was a very tumultuous one for the consistently-great Pittsburgh Steelers. Starting off 7-2-1, they went 2-4 in their last six games to barely miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013. During their final regular season game, Brown was unexpectedly inactive, for reasons then unknown. It wouldn’t be until after the regular season that reports of a fiery tension between Brown and starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (and head coach Mike Tomlin) would surface, leading to a downward spiral of bad press and inevitable questions surrounding the well-being of the team. Per that initial account, all signs pointed to Antonio Brown quitting on the team out of spite.

It’s very unlikely that Antonio Brown will be with the Steelers next season, as reports made just today state that the organization has agreed to try and find a trade partner willing to give Brown a new home. With the end of an era in Pittsburgh, one that saw unprecedented production at the wide receiver position, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the recent history of wide receivers who, while talented, caused internal headaches for the teams they played for. This leads to the question at hand: How much should a player’s character impact their legacy?

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Does Antonio Brown want this?

Likely the most notable example is that of Terrell Owens, known for his time with the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys. Owens was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and his statistics back that up, seeing as he’s in the top five in every major receiving category. What may overlap that talent was the basis of his character, which many refer to as “being a diva.” He adores attention; he celebrated in intricate ways that showered himself with a showboat attitude that entertained as much as it annoyed. When he didn’t like something about the team (usually concerning the quarterback), he was open about it, especially to the media, which is a source you do not want to spill dysfunction to. Many accused him of being a me-first player, and more would dub him a “locker room cancer.” He was the type of player who was a great addition when the team played well, and a nightmare when the team underwhelmed.

When he finally retired from the NFL, there was considerable debate as to whether he even belonged in the Hall of Fame, even though his statistical merit made him a sure thing. Should players who made a struggling team even worse with their emotional baggage be considered with those who played well and did whatever they could to support their team? It made a convincing argument, and in Owens’s first year of eligibility in 2016, he was not voted in. He wasn’t voted in in 2017, either. When he finally made it in 2018, Owens skipped the official ceremony to conduct his own at his alma mater (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). Many saw this as Owens being Owens, and the man himself later admitted that he was spiteful for not being voted in his first year of eligibility due to his character.

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Perhaps he just wants this?

Within this context, where does this leave Antonio Brown, who is openly using the power of social media to make his team want to cut bait, as well as take shots at his own quarterback? Does this open desire for a fresh start impact the legacy he made for himself throughout the course of his legendary NFL career? Many would likely argue that it does, that it makes him yet another diva receiver that brings the team down with them whenever they’re unhappy, burning the bridges with extravagant bravado. Brown has always shown signs (through various reports) of being confident in himself and his value to his team, but in comparison to Owens, who almost made it a career in itself to spurn the teams he played for, this is the first time he’s been so compelling about it. Of course, there’s no reason to think this won’t be the start of a similar path.

And while I’m at it, let’s compare Brown’s career to Calvin Johnson, a wide receiver who retired at the age Brown is now and was also considered the NFL’s top wide receiver during his prime. Their receiving numbers are fairly similar (though Brown has over 100 more career receptions), and Brown’s nine years in the league parallel with Johnson’s nine years in the league perfectly, making it an easy comparison. The noteworthy difference between these two receivers (besides the substantial difference in height) is that Johnson never spoke out against his team. By all accounts, Johnson was a well-mannered and respectful individual, who typically kept a low profile despite his prominence on the field.

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The anti-Antonio Brown?

Should he be considered as a better player overall than Brown because he never proved to be a headache? Brown has one more Pro Bowl nod and First-Team All-Pro selection than Johnson, and has 100 more career receptions in the same amount of time. There are other factors to consider, of course, seeing as Brown played for typically good teams and Johnson played for a team with two winning seasons in his entire career there. Even so, where is the line drawn for the quality of character in a player? Where does leadership play a role? These intangibles are often associated with a good quarterback. What about for other positions?

In the end, it’s likely to be an ongoing topic of discussion that will never be settled. After all, among those in the Hall of Fame, some of them weren’t high-character guys. Antonio Brown may have his reasons for the display he’s currently showcasing, but from those on the outside, he may never be anything more than a “quitter” for his inactive stint during the final game of the 2018 season. In the realm of sports, human emotion plays a deceptively large role in regards to the status we place on those who participate. With all the accomplishments he could ever want from an NFL career (besides a Super Bowl victory), Brown may simply be remembered for being the second-coming of Terrell Owens, skill and all.

How much impact do you think one’s character should have in the realm of sports?

Thank you for your time. Have a great day.

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