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We are responsible for the current Antonio Brown fiasco

The fans, the media, and Antonio Brown himself have contributed to the chaos that’s currently imbuing the franchise

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

You’re a Bengals fan. Your team is 2-0. Your quarterback, since changing offensive coordinators midway through the 2017 season, is playing like an All-Pro. Your offense is young and dynamic; the defense is cohesive, formidable, and, critically, getting its second-best player back next week. Elsewhere, your foremost rivals are imploding, plagued by injuries, ineffectiveness, and external strife.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have become the NFL’s biggest spectacle, thanks in no small part to all the attention being paid to Antonio Brown’s “antics” (or insert whatever terminology you find most palatable). In a loss to Kansas City last Sunday, Brown was seen venting to offensive coordinator Larry Fichtner and receivers coach Darryl Drake over...who knows. Targets? Usage? Ben missing throws? It’s currently not clear. Either way, he skipped the following day’s walk-through, apparently so he could fire off zingers at former public relations stooges on Twitter and fuel rampant speculation about his future with the team. It sure worked!

What’s evident is that whatever version of Antonio Brown we’re seeing now is not the same amiable, fun-loving Antonio Brown from two or three years ago. He seems angry. Stressed out. Preoccupied. The intensity that imbued his workouts and game performances has reached the sidelines and his social media accounts. He disdains the traditional media. And he should—they’re what’s caused this mess. I realize that blaming the media for, uhh, everything is very 2018 (an the irony of complaining about the media is not lost on me given that, when I click the publish button, I technically become “media”), but, in this case, I think it’s a fair appraisal.

Though Pittsburgh is by definition a small market compared to, say, New York City, the rigor with which the local media covers the Steelers is tantamount to the coverage the New York media affords the Jets or Giants. In fact, I’d argue that athletes in Pittsburgh—especially ones who play for the Steelers—are under an even more discerning microscope than athletes in New York because:

A) there are fewer teams (duh)
B) there are fewer good teams (apologies to the Pirates, Pitt basketball, and Pitt football)
C) the fanbase, in general, is more fervent

Here is Antonio Brown, the face of what is by far the biggest draw in the city.

Here is Antonio Brown, an unheralded draft afterthought who the Steelers thought could be a decent kick returner down the line, emerging as one of the NFL’s topmost superstars by way of his merciless, chip-on-the-shoulder work ethic.

Here is Antonio Brown, a player with a spotless off-field track record, donating $100,000 to the local children’s hospital.

Here is Antonio Brown, posing for selfies with fans pregame, becoming an all-time fan-favorite.

Now, here is Antonio Brown showing up late to a scheduled appearance at that same hospital.

Here is Antonio Brown throwing a water cooler in disgust.

Here is Antonio Brown yucking it up on Facebook Live in advance of the AFC Championship Game, a game in which his Steelers were blown out by the Patriots.

Here is Antonio Brown getting testy with the media.

Here he is calling the most distinguished football writer in the city “a clown.”

You get the point; the guy can’t even let out a fart without some smarmy media type tsk-tsking him in a radio segment or newspaper article for not saying “excuse me.”

In my estimation, though, the singular moment that precipitated the...let’s call it the degradation of Brown’s public persona...was his “holdout” before the 2016 season. If you recall, with two years remaining on what was at the time a ridiculously cheap contract, one that certainly was not befitting of Brown’s skillset or production, Brown “held out” of voluntary organized team activities (whether he actually did this over his contract is debatable), which is when some folks got a little comfortable throwing the word “diva” around. Brown eventually returned, the Steelers fronted him some additional cash, and things were just peachy from then on; but, in retrospect, that strikes me as a particularly momentous occurrence. Any “contentious” events that followed, ranging from the Facebook Live fiasco to the ongoing proceedings, drew the ire of the fanbase, who accused Brown of being spoiled. Here is a scathing expose that appeared in The Undefeated, seemingly out of nowhere, in which Jesse Washington rebukes Brown and accuses his “Call God” act as being a front. Imagine already harboring some kind of baseline disdain for Antonio Brown and reading that, or a story about Brown showing up late to visit a bunch of sick kids, or a story about him bringing a helicopter to training camp. It’s gonna reinforce any inherent negativity or, at the very least, rub you the wrong way.

Now, I want to make it clear I’m that not blaming the media for treating Brown “unfairly” and I’m certainly not condemning Steelers fans who are irked by whatever it is that’s going on with Brown (and, for that matter, the rest of the team). The media is responsible for reporting the facts and writing interesting things, and Antonio Brown is an overflowing font of evergreen content. On Tuesday, he was one of the most talked-about things on Twitter; there was controversy surrounding a Supreme Court nominee, there was an alleged former “associate” of the president discussing characters from Mario Bros., and there was Antonio Brown. Anything Brown does is going to be newsworthy, so it would actually be a disservice to their readerships for local publications to ignore exciting stories that drive conversations and generate clicks.

Steelers fans, particularly older Steelers fans, luxuriate in decorum. You score, you hand the ball to the official, and you head to the bench. I rip on the old-timers a lot, but it’s understandable to expect your favorite team to behave a certain way, a way that you’re used to seeing and in a way that reflects some of the, erm, traditional norms and values of the franchise: hard-working, selfless, classy, whatever. The thinking here is that individuals’ personalities are secondary to the success of the team, and if any individual is not all-in on promoting this success, they aren’t worth keeping around.

And Brown, despite his ubiquitous online presence, is usually very reserved when there’s a camera in his face, which is exactly why his mini-tirade back in July about the media caught everyone off-guard. (The exception here is the “What It Is” videos, wherein Brown is decidedly more in-his-element). He gets nervous during interviews, often repeating boilerplate football player lingo (“Trying to do what’s needed to win” “Gotta give credit to the guys up front” etc.) or stumbling on his words. Thus, while I do think that superstar athletes maybe should develop a thicker skin and learn to welcome the attention that comes along with being a professional athlete, perhaps Brown is just an innately sensitive person (which is absolutely fine, by the way) and the frequent media coverage (which include everything from critical blog posts to straight hit-pieces) and backlash from the fan base has started to take its toll on him.

Overall, I think this is a bad situation all around, and its one I think has been exacerbated by each party’s failure to empathize with the other. Brown needs to understand that the media have responsibilities to uphold, and that sometimes fans are going to have negative perceptions of his actions; the fans—you and me—need to understand that Antonio Brown is a human person, one with human emotions and human problems, and that his current indignation towards everything is most likely the result of compounding and overwhelming negative attention (attention that, in fairness, he may have invited, but maybe more attention than he intended). With any luck, we’ll all be on our way to moving forward soon enough.