This week, Antonio Brown was freed from football and can now take up his real passion – becoming a full-time litigator of his many grievances.
At least, that’s what it sounds like. Brown was cut by the New England Patriots, shortly after being jettisoned at high speed by the Oakland Raiders, which was some time after he was shot out of Pittsburgh like a man out of a cannon.
In the interim, Brown has gone from eccentric genius to twisted paragon of athletic entitlement. He is a walking, talking, possibly deranged example of what happens when you tell people from a formative age they are special.
All will eventually start to believe it. Some will start to act like it. A few will turn into Caligula. They owe the world nothing, and it owes them everything they want in return.
Although already out of work, Brown said in a tweet on Sunday he was quitting football to begin what sounds like a court action against the NFL and at least two of its franchises.
“Will not be playing in the @NFL anymore these owners can cancel deals do whatever they want at anytime we will see if the @NFLPA hold them accountable sad they can just void guarantees anytime going on 40m 2 months will see if they pay up!”
Antonio Brown, the great tipper of culture shibboleths. First up on his list – the proper use of punctuation.
We’ll leave it to the courts to decide just how unsavoury a person Brown is – the sort who is impossible to work with, the sort who habitually chisels on his bills or the sort who sexually assaults his friends.
But the public has already decided where they land on Brown. They’ve had enough of him, thanks very much.
Despite his evident skill, any team that decides to take him on will need to erect 18 inches of bulletproof PR between themselves and the internet before they can take that risk. Most have decided it isn’t worth the bother.
In past decades, sports have led the wider culture. In recent months, as the influence of sports wanes, it’s been following.
One of the things that has quietly changed about our biggest leagues and the way their customers interact with them: People no longer enjoy seeing people who behave badly make good in the end.
Until quite recently, you could be Satan made flesh and people would forgive you that – the horns, the smell of sulphur, the evil – if you could reliably rush for 100 yards a game or score 50 goals a season.
This was sport’s version of the artist versus his art conundrum. Average fans happily separated the two in their minds. In many cases, one made the other more exciting.
This is how Kobe Bryant’s career survived a rape charge. He deployed a thin smoke screen of doubt, laid out a little dough and went back to being one of the best in history.
Had Bryant been just okay at basketball, the NBA would’ve made an extreme example out of him. Since he was exceptionally good at basketball, the league instead made him a centrepiece of its marketing.
Along the way, Bryant shed his former skin as an unremarkable personality, and embraced a new role as an antihero. People ate that up. Bryant wasn’t a defective personality. He was a tortured artist. He was mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Bryant’s colleagues in sport learned from that. They began to understand that you couldn’t be a squeaky clean, Wheaties front-man type, as well as being repeatedly up on charges. But you could be the sort of person frequently driven home in squad cars if you were also a bit of a menace on the field/court/ice/in front of a microphone.
It’s not hard to follow the line from that development – that superstars were now allowed to pull a mid-career heel turn and get even more popular – to the current era of swaggering star clout.
Not that long ago, fans would have turned on anyone who complained publicly about their bosses, or demanded trades, or acted as the de facto GMs of the teams they played on.
Nowadays, it is not just par for the course. It’s the best possible indicator that you are really good at your job.
This was why so many home fans applauded Kawhi Leonard for abandoning the Toronto Raptors and putting his new team, the L.A. Clippers, in what may in the end turn out to be a roster death spiral. He was doing what modern stars are expected to do.
That trend is slowly turning back in on itself, beginning with where it started. Antiheroes are no longer hot. People want actual heroes. Failing that, they want to root for athletes who don’t appear to be actively awful.
Teams initially treated this as a bad thing – fighting to keep or rehabilitate repeat offenders. They’re coming around to the idea that it is, in fact, good business. If the fans don’t want an expensive liability on the club, then why would they?
In this instance, the free market is also finding ways to accommodate a cultural shift. Because dumping a guy you already knew was deeply flawed when you find out he is deeply flawed is not exactly a coherent human-resources strategy.
The Patriots felt freed to do it because they figured that fans, even the most committed “love the art, not the artist” types, would back them on it. And while Bostonians are not known for their reasonableness on sporting matters, they largely have. No one wants to be seen out on the streets pumping the tires of a bad guy because he catches a ball real good. That’s no longer cool.
It will never change entirely. There will always be room on the roster for a star of the first rank who is a dipstick in his personal life. But the margin of error is eroding.
You got a DUI? We can overlook that. You got three DUIs? We’re going to have a little think about this. You beat up your wife? Good luck in your next career.
This is how things change. Slowly at first, then all of a sudden. Brown has been in the slow part of the process for a couple of weeks. He’s now in the midst of finding out about the all of a sudden. Others will surely follow, but fewer and fewer as pros begin to absorb the new way of doing things.