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The Antonio Brown dilemma has shed light on the Steelers’ organizational dynamics

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With Brown’s departure all but certain, we reflect on the ways in which this debacle has underscored issues in Pittsburgh’s power structure

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the relationship between Antonio Brown and the Steelers is fractured beyond repair. Tuesday morning, Brown, who has made it profusely evident that he wants to be traded, met face-to-face with Art Rooney II, Steelers chairman and chief executive in a managerial braintrust that includes head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert. The particulars of this meeting have yet to be disclosed, but what’s immediately clear is that Brown and Rooney decided that a clean break is the only equitable solution. The Killer Bs era has finally, mercifully, reached its conclusion.

Which, you know, is fine. Anyone who’s been following this story with even passing interest knew that Brown’s departure was inevitable, so the result of Tuesday’s meeting was simply official confirmation of an anticipated eventuality. What I find most interesting about the Antonio Brown ordeal is not the end result, but that path that led us to this point. Indeed, I believe that the events that preceded Tuesday’s meeting have illuminated some of the darkness underpinning the Steelers’ power structure.

Now, this is the part where I should preface the remainder of this blog by mentioning that this is not intended to be a hit piece aimed at slandering Mike Tomlin or Ben Roethlisberger, but to remark on what Brown’s indicating may be some sort of power struggle sensibly and without casting aspersions.

I’d also like to point out that “darkness” in this context should be considered devoid of any odious connotations, because I’m literally implying that the emergent discourse—which, as of this writing, has been entirely one-sided in favor of Brown; the Steelers, for the most part, have remained practically silent on all matters involving Antonio Brown, perhaps wisely—has shed light on some organizational dynamics that I suspected, but never fully understood. For example, I assumed that all head coaches play favorites—if you realistically believe that Bill Belichick knows the names of his own children, let alone the first and last names of the 70-some-odd men populating his most recent active roster, injured reserve, and practice squad, then I’d like to discuss investment opportunities for some wondrous beachfront property in Iowa—and that, duh, the franchise quarterback is always HBIC. Still, I never really had direct confirmation of such. Brown’s put a name and a face to some insider trade secrets that are almost always divulged by some nameless source too afraid to speak on record.

Let’s start with Tomlin, who’s held the “player’s coach” epithet for the entirety of his head coaching career. Certainly, it would be great if everyone on the team bought into the Every Man Counts mentality, in which self-governance is cast by the wayside and a range of differing roles, worldviews, and philosophies dovetail into a United Locker Room, but nowhere in our mortal plane does such a paradise exist. Star players are given more leeway than special teamers. This is our reality.

Mike Tomlin adhered to this philosophy, and, according to the exceptional reporting of Jeremy Fowler, “tolerated” many of Brown’s previous escapades—sideline tantrums, missed meetings, the infamous Facebook Live debacle—specifically because Brown was and is such a singular on-field presence. Even if you’re hesitant to take the above-referenced Fowler report as gospel, consider what resulted in the run-up to Steelers’ regular season finale against Cincinnati: by Tomlin’s own admission, the morning of the game, Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus phoned Tomlin to inform him that Brown intended to play in the game that afternoon, despite Brown reportedly bailing on a Wednesday practice session and having missed three days worth of meetings, including Saturday’s walk-through session. Thus, it can be reasonably inferred from this vignette that Brown truly, sincerely believed that his actions during the week would not lead to any significant consequences. No reasonable person is inherently that heedless; Brown’s sense of entitlement was cultivated by preferential treatment—or, at the very least, a willingness to look in the other direction—from the authority figures within the Steelers hegemony until it metastasized into a complete disregard for the procedures that applied to almost everyone else. Antonio Brown should not be exonerated for effectively forcing his way out of a contract, but Mike Tomlin allowed this to happen.

Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, comes away looking like a company man—an extension of ownership, if Brown is to be believed. On the surface, this as is fine as it is obvious. Ben’s the longest-tenured member of the Steelers (his reign there actually predates Tomlin’s by several years), he’s won a pair of Super Bowls, and he’ll one day find himself enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Those things, coupled with the fact that Big Ben is still playing at an extremely high level for a contending team, makes him easily among the most unassailable entities in organized sports (professionally, anyway; personal matters are a much different story).

But Ben has a reputation for being publicly abrasive, particular with respect to his receivers. He famously decried the inexperience of his receiving corps following a loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game a few years ago, and he was an outward critic of Martavis Bryant. More recently, Roethlisberger took aim at first-year receiver James Washington and blamed Brown for running the incorrect route on a play in which he threw a game-ending interception against Denver. According to Ben, Ben’s earned the right to denounce his teammates—cynicism aside, he’s probably right about that part—but Brown doesn’t see it that way.

(It’s possible that other players, privately, don’t see it that way, either. Unlike Brown, though, they’re unwilling to say as much publicly.)

Perusing players’ social media profiles in the natural evolution of modern journalism, so I’ve been keeping tabs on Brown’s Twitter profile. Among the recent tweets “liked” by Brown is the following:

Conflating Twitter activity to draw actual conclusions about an individual’s mindset is obviously very irresponsible and not entirely fair, but the fact that Brown “liked” these tweets probably doesn’t not mean anything. (With that said, I am somewhat wont to think the the latter of these tweets may be more about Brown’s support of Colin Kaepernick than it is his disdain with Roethlisberger, but who knows.)

Again, it’s no secret that the head coaches favor select players and that star quarterbacks can freely speak about all matter of team and personnel concerns without compunction, but it’s always some “unnamed name source familiar with team matters” who leaks tidbits of intel. Never can I recall an individual player—let alone a megawatt superstar—going rogue, putting his name to the truths he believes he’s speaking, and burning bridges on his way out the door.

Keeping all of these things in mind, Antonio Brown was never going to win a power struggle, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that he was never particularly interested in doing so. Brown’s trade request will be officially granted in a matter of weeks, and the very same Twitter profile we’ve been watching so closely for the past month will soon bear the name of his new employer. The Steelers will move forward with the pieces they have in place, but will do so with the knowledge that the general football-watching community is cognizant of revelations they’d have undoubtedly preferred to play closer to the chest.