Antonio Brown, bare-chested and flashing the peace sign, jogged off the field at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday, leaving behind a football game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, possibly, his N.F.L. career. His premature exit — it was only the third quarter — was either an act of extreme subordination or a refusal to compromise his health, or, perhaps, both.
The Buccaneers finalized that exit by announcing on Thursday that they had released Brown, terminating his $3.1 million contract, and contesting his assertion of the events that led to his departure.
Brown’s 12-year N.F.L. career has been defined by tortuous conflicts with teams that both defy social norms and manage not to scare off potential suitors. In the latest contretemps surrounding his departure from his fourth employer in four seasons, the conflicting perspectives center on an ankle injury he sustained in October but that has, he said, continued to bother him. In a statement issued Wednesday night through his lawyer, Sean Burstyn, he said he would need surgery to repair it.
Asserting that he did not quit on his team, Brown accused the Buccaneers of an “ongoing cover-up,” claiming they knew about the severity of his injured ankle and demanded he continue to play anyway. Brown said magnetic resonance imaging revealed broken bone fragments in his ankle and a ligament torn from the bone. In their statement Thursday announcing Brown’s departure, the Buccaneers said that Brown had been cleared by their medical staff and that “at no point during the game” on Sunday did he indicate that he could not play.
That Brown’s tenure with Tampa Bay would end this way — in a raging dispute with his former bosses, blaming others while acknowledging little culpability of his own — follows a pattern that dates back several years, to the end of his nearly 10-year tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2018 season.
The Buccaneers knew about Brown’s transgressions at every stop, but they, like others, were seduced by his talent. Tampa Bay signed him in October 2020, at the conclusion of his eight-game N.F.L. suspension for his role in a burglary and for sending intimidating texts to a woman who accused Brown of sexual assault. The team was hopeful that its infrastructure — spearheaded by a former New England teammate, quarterback Tom Brady — could enable him to thrive without his disrupting its pursuit of a championship.
The Buccaneers were correct. For about a year.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, Brown, 33, has bounced among teams, dogged by criminal and civil accusations, N.F.L. investigations and suspensions. His time in Pittsburgh, where he evolved from a sixth-round draft choice into one of the best receivers in the N.F.L., ended in disharmony, with his violating the league’s social media policy; criticizing his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger; and campaigning to attract teams he wanted to join.
The Steelers traded him to the Raiders, who soon endured their own troubles with Brown: He skipped practices; refused to wear a new helmet; developed a case of frostbite, which kept him out of training camp; and threatened to punch General Manager Mike Mayock before being released on Sept. 7, 2019, without playing in a game for the franchise.
Brown remained unemployed the rest of that season, and into 2020, while he served an eight-game suspension for his role in a disagreement with a moving company employee, for which he pleaded no contest to burglary and battery charges, for which he served one year of probation. Brown was also penalized for sending threatening texts to a woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct.
At the time of his signing, Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said he wouldn’t tolerate any misconduct from Brown.
“We’re on the hook for nothing in this deal,” Arians said. “He screws up one time, he’s gone. I don’t think he will because he wants to play.”
Brown helped the Buccaneers win the Super Bowl last season, catching a touchdown in their victory against Kansas City. But Brown procured a fake Covid-19 vaccination card, enabling him to sidestep the more rigorous protocols for unvaccinated players. The league, after an investigation, suspended him for three games.
He returned from that suspension — after not playing since Oct. 14 because of an ankle injury — on Dec. 26, playing 79 percent of the team’s offensive snaps against Carolina and catching 10 passes for 101 yards.
He was listed on the Buccaneers’ injury report heading into Sunday’s game against the Jets, in which he caught three passes for 26 yards in two and a half quarters. In his statement, Brown said that “his coach” — an apparent allusion to Arians — shouted at him: “‘What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you?’” and ordered him to get on the field. According to Brown, when the receiver said he couldn’t go back in, Arians shouted that he was “done” and swiped his finger across his throat.
Arians said on Thursday that Brown had been upset at halftime about not receiving the ball enough, reiterating that their sideline conversation did not involve Brown’s ankle.
“We called for the personnel group that he had played in the entire game, and he refused to go into the game,” Arians said Thursday. “That’s when I looked back and saw him basically wave off the coach. I then went back and approached him about what was going on. ‘I ain’t playing.’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I ain’t getting the ball.’ That’s when I said, ‘You’re done.’”
The Buccaneers countered Brown’s version of events Thursday, saying that they had requested “multiple times” to schedule an evaluation by an orthopedic specialist but that Brown hadn’t complied.
In an Instagram story on Thursday, Brown showed messages between him and Arians leading up to Sunday’s game in which they discussed whether he could play. He also posted a screenshot of a text exchange he said he had with Alex Guerrero, Brady’s trainer, in which he asks for half of the $100,000 fee they had agreed on at the outset of their working together. Brown said he no longer wanted to train with Guerrero.
It was Brown’s refusal to pay his former live-in chef that exposed his desire to obtain the fake vaccination card, as reported in November by The Tampa Bay Times. That incident was a criminal offense, but the Buccaneers decided not to release him. They tolerated it because, Arians said last month, keeping him was in the best interests of the team.