Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
The controversial Raiders receiver, injured Colts quarterback and holdout Washington lineman find themselves facing trust issues with their teams and the NFL when it comes to their health, safety and privacy.
Who can blame them? But Brown, Luck and Williams are handling surprisingly similar situations in very different ways, which has led to some very different reactions.
Brown, of course, is embroiled in the drama of the summer: a boondoggle involving banned helmets that resulted in training-camp defections, a Raiders ultimatum and a brief nationwide scavenger hunt for a 2010 or later Schutt Air Advantage, apparently the Holy Grail of helmets. Brown returned to the team on Monday, but he also filed a new grievance against the league, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.
Luck remains sidelined with an injury of a nature and severity that changes depending on whom you speak to and when you speak to them. The longer Luck is sidelined, the worse the injury seems to become, which is the opposite of how both diagnosis and healing are supposed to happen. Luck has not practiced in training camp and the Colts aren’t sure whether he will be available for the season opener. They only succeed at playing all of this off as normal because they found themselves in the same predicament with Luck two years ago.
In Washington, All-Pro left tackle Williams is holding out of camp and vows never to play for the Redskins again because of the way the team handled a non-football-related medical situation during the offseason, per JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington. There have been no reports of trade progress or of attempted apologies (verbal or financial), because the organizational philosophy in Washington is to do nothing and hope it works.
Three important players, three health-and-safety concerns of varying magnitude. And three different organizational reactions: escalating exasperation by the Raiders, quietly desperate patience by the Colts, oblivious cluelessness in Washington. Fans, for the most part, are pointing and laughing at Brown, scratching their heads about Luck and speculating about which team Williams will eventually play for.
Now, noting that there are underlying similarities between these three situations is different from saying something silly like: “So ya see, there is really no difference whatsoever between Brown, Luck and Williams.” On a weirdness scale from 1-to-10, Brown’s needlessly overheated helmet saga is at least a 14. The Luck situation is about a 5 or 6 on that same weirdness scale. And the Williams situation is at least a 2 or 3 (slightly higher than the default weirdness in Washington).
Yet we need to recognize that Brown, Luck and Williams are all motivated by the same thing: the need for trust, mixed with a little privacy, dignity and respect from their employers.
AJ Mast/Associated Press
Stephen Holder of The Athletic provided some perspective on the Luck health mystery last week. Per Holder, Luck wouldn’t even tell backup quarterback and friend Matt Hasselbeck the precise nature of his past injuries. He also wouldn’t test the ailing shoulder that sidelined him in 2017 until teammates left the facility and only “need-to-know” witnesses were in attendance.
Luck, in other words, is extremely private about his injuries, much more so than most any other NFL player. The Colts respect that privacy by not blabbing every health detail to the public, even when it makes the organization sound both foolish and (perhaps genuinely) uninformed.
Brown’s insistence on the exact year, make and model of unapproved helmets sounds ridiculous. But his desire to wear a helmet he deems comfortable and safe, and to have his concerns taken seriously, sounds a lot like Luck’s desire to not enter every MRI result into the public record. Sneaking into practice with a hand-painted helmet sounds silly, but so does a quarterback unwilling to let his own teammates watch him throw.
As for Williams, he had offseason surgery to remove what, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, was feared to be a malignant growth, and his relationship with the team soon soured. His exact issues with his treatment are not known, but former teammate DeAngelo Hall said on NFL Network that Williams wants the team’s training staff “out of here.” Su’a Cravens, another former teammate, wrote on Twitter that Washington “mishandled injuries and withheld info” and committed other scurrilous acts.
Sports team doctors are team employees, and whole books have been written about the conflicts of interest that arise when they try to get players back to work as quickly and cheaply as possible. Heck, NBA All-Star Kawhi Leonard sat out most of a season and demanded a trade after a disagreement with the San Antonio Spurs medical staff.
Williams’ distrust of Washington’s staff is a serious matter. But at its core, this is just another conflict about trust, health and safety: the Antonio Brown saga as a hospital procedural drama instead of a SpongeBob cartoon.
If the issues remained the same but the tactics and circumstances were different, the Luck, Brown and Williams situations might not look so different at all.
If Brown filed formal complaints and grievances earlier and came equipped with less excess baggage, his helmet demands would be treated more like a player rights-and-safety issue than a reality TV episode.
If Luck played for an organization with a shaky medical staff and sneaky front office, murmurs about his dedication and commitment might “accidentally” leak into the media. If he looked and sounded like, oh let’s say Cam Newton, a cross-section of the public would take the bait.
If a less respected player than Williams took issue with a more respected organization than Washington, his holdout might not be taken as seriously or sympathetically.
As it stands, Brown is the buffoon, Williams the conscientious objector and Luck the man of mystery. But NFL players are in a dangerous field, trying to maintain a little privacy and dignity while living in a fishbowl. Trust can be tenuous between players and the teams and league that don’t have their best interests or long-term health at heart. And that lack of trust can manifest itself in unusual, unpredictable ways.
Yes, the Brown helmet drama is pretty silly. But so is having to play guessing games about a professional athlete’s injury status. And the underlying issues are very, very serious.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.