Antonio Brown’s Rape Lawsuit a Reminder of the NFL’s Problematic Record on Sexual Exploitation

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Even though the NFL is conducting its own investigation following allegations of sexual misconduct*, sexual assault, and rape that came to light because of a civil lawsuit filed in federal court by Antonio Brown’s former trainer—Britney Taylor—after settlement negotiations fell through, the fact that the New England Patriots chose to play Brown on September 15 after the NFL decided not to place him on the Commissioner’s Exempt List at this time highlights the NFL’s ongoing problem regarding issues of sexual exploitation.

Although there is certainly a right to due process and a warranted discussion is needed regarding how to handle suspensions and exemptions based solely on the filing of civil litigation against players and personnel, the NFL has held itself up as an arbiter of justice beyond even criminal conviction in regards to its players and personnel on many occasions in the past.

It’s particularly notable that the NFL includes the following statement in its Personal Conduct Policy:

It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.

Players convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding (as defined in this Policy) are subject to discipline. But even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline. Prohibited conduct includes but is not limited to the following:

. . . Assault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses . . . (emphasis added).

That being said, the policy has not been consistently applied over the years. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension in 2010 after he was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Georgia even though he was not charged by Georgia authorities. C.J. Spillman, a defensive back, was accused of sexual assaulting a massage therapist in 2013 and was accused of raping a woman in the Cowboys’ team hotel in 2014 but received zero disciplinary action from the NFL in either instance. Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham received a six-game suspension after pleading guilty to posting “revenge porn” (a.k.a. non-consensually shared nude images) of his girlfriend on Instagram, but wide receiver Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots received no discipline from his team nor from the NFL after allegations that he was inappropriately grabbing a woman’s vagina.

And then there is the case of the New England Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft.

In February 2019, just a few short months before Antonio Brown’s rape lawsuit became public, Robert Kraft was caught up in criminal charges regarding his alleged sexual engagement with prostitutes at an illicit massage parlor that was a part of a human trafficking ring in Florida. In spite of the credible allegations against Mr. Kraft, the NFL has refused to mete out any form of discipline against the wealthy owner even though the conduct in question would seem to clearly be in violation of the NFL’s aforementioned Personal Conduct Policy.

As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to grant the benefit of the doubt to the NFL when they claim to be concerned about issues of sexual violence and exploitation when they continue to operate with unclear and inconsistently-applied policy regarding NFL personnel and their sexual misconduct.

Accordingly, we are continuing to call on the NFL to take seriously these matters of sexual exploitation by improving and consistently applying its policy regarding sexual exploitation. It is simply unacceptable that high-profile players and personnel are not held to a clear, rigorous, and consistently applied standard that prioritizes the rights and well-being of those who are being abused and exploited. Issues of sexual exploitation such as rape and human trafficking are not merely matters of propriety for a highly-visible and supposedly respectable organization to brush off with sterilized press statements. They are serious issues of truth and justice for all that impact real human beings.

*On September 16, Sports Illustrated published a story with additional allegations (separate from Antonio Brown’s rape lawsuit) from another woman accusing Brown of sexual misconduct. As of the publication of this piece, the NFL had yet to comment on the new allegations although Brown had issued a denial of the accusations through his lawyer.

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The Numbers

300+

NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.

100+

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.

93

NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.

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