UPDATE (Sept. 20, 2019, 4:25 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the news that Antonio Brown was released by the New England Patriots on Friday. The team noted in a statement that "we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time."
But Brown’s not the first professional player to combine massive talent with massive red flags. Chris Henry was one of the most incredible wide receivers I ever watched play. He was everything you wanted a wide receiver to be: Fast, tall, lithe and wiry, with soft hands that could catch anything in his remote vicinity. He looked like the future of football. He, like Brown, was also a huge pain for every team that employed him, in ways that were both ill-considered and relatively harmless — even amusing.
Brown’s not the first professional player to combine massive talent with massive red flags. Chris Henry was one of the most incredible wide receivers I ever watched play.
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Henry would be late for practice and sometimes forget to go all together, and he was constantly getting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. His college coach at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez, said he was “an embarrassment to himself and the program.” When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Henry to the NFL in 2005, the receiver was quickly suspended for eight games following a stunning four arrests in a 14-month period. These alleged crimes were not particularly malicious offenses; he gave alcohol to a minor, he carried a concealed weapon without a license, he had some marijuana on his possession, he blew too high on a breathalyzer and got a DUI. The rapid succession of the arrests was, frankly, amusing: It is difficult for an NFL player to be arrested for times in 14 months, even if he was trying. Henry even became a bit of a cult hero for his antics on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” It was sort of all in good fun. It was entertaining.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. A year after a broken arm ended his career, Henry was killed when he jumped off the back of a moving truck while having an argument with his girlfriend. When doctors did an autopsy, they discovered Henry suffered from a severe form of CTE (a degenerative brain disease found in people who have a history of repetitive brain trauma), making him the first player to have died with the disease while still active in the league. This, despite the fact that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion in his career.
Suddenly, all those funny, even endearing Chris Henry missteps and miscues weren’t so funny anymore. What we saw as an eccentric personality may have simply been a man suffering from a serious brain injury. Since Henry’s death in 2009, we have learned more about CTE and the effects it can have on those who may have it, and their loved ones. But I’m not sure we’ve learned that much more about the entertainment part of it.
It is worth noting that the entire sports world was riveted by every twist and turn of this story. Why did he not want the new “safer” helmet? Why does he have frostbite? Why is he secretly recording his coach’s phone calls? Why is he putting all this guaranteed money at risk? Why is this all happening on Instagram? You couldn’t turn on a single sports television program without Brown’s latest wild mood swing dominating the conversation. We loved it. It was incredibly entertaining.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Shortly after he signed with the Patriots, Brown was served with a lawsuit accusing him of raping his former trainer, a woman he met in Bible study at Central Michigan University, where he went to school. The details of the accusations are deeply disturbing, even before you get to the actual description of the alleged rape. Included are emails and texts sent by Brown to the woman that are not only harrowing but also incredibly disjointed and erratic — exactly the sort of strangeness that we were all so obsessed with just a few days earlier.
Then another woman stepped forward, claiming that Brown had exposed himself to her while she worked on a mural in his home. Sports Illustrated reported that after it reported the accusations, Brown sent his accuser intimidating texts. Then on Friday, the Patriots cut their controversial star.
We do not know that Brown is suffering from CTE: One of the many cruelties of the disease is that is it undiagnosable until you look at the brain after death. But there his undeniable peculiarities should at least have given us some pause. Now, after Brown has gotten involved in a situation that is truly disturbing and horrible, everyone is putting their hands in the air, not wanting anything to do with Brown and his antics anymore. But just one week ago we couldn’t get enough of them. It’s all in good fun. Until it’s not. Maybe it never should be in the first place.
Will Leitch is a national correspondent for MLB, contributing editor at New York Magazine, host of “The Will Leitch Show” on Sports Illustrated and the founder of Deadspin.