The NFL will give serious consideration to placing Antonio Brown on paid leave via its commissioner’s exempt list, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, after he was accused in a federal lawsuit in Florida of rape and sexual assault.
The wide receiver would be ineligible to play for the New England Patriots if he’s placed on the exempt list by the league.
Placing Brown on the exempt list is “possible” and something that the NFL is “going to have to focus on,” said one of the people close to the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The league is investigating the allegations but it’s unclear whether a decision about the exempt list will be made this week, before the Patriots are scheduled to play again. Brown has not been charged with a crime, so the NFL does not have to be concerned, at this point, about interfering with a criminal investigation. It is not clear yet if or when the league’s investigators will be able to arrange interviews with Brown’s accuser and other potential witnesses.
If the league opts to put Brown on paid leave, it also would have to decide under what conditions he would be permitted to come off the exempt list and how it would react, for example, to a prospective settlement of the civil lawsuit. Brown has denied the allegations through his attorney.
NFL leaders planned to meet Wednesday about the matter. The league potentially could allow Brown to begin playing for the Patriots while its investigation proceeds, and then place him on paid leave at some point if NFL officials believe that is warranted.
Brown was at the Patriots’ facility Wednesday with the expectation that he would participate in meetings and practice, ESPN reported.
He agreed to a one-year contract with the Patriots on Saturday, hours after being released by the Oakland Raiders. The team officially announced the signing Tuesday and Brown is to practice with the Patriots this week. He could play in their game Sunday at Miami, barring action by the NFL.
Brown denied the allegations through his attorney, Darren Heitner, who said that Brown believes he is the victim of “a money grab” by his accuser.
Brown could face punishment by the league under the personal conduct policy. The policy empowers the NFL to punish a player, if it believes after an investigation that disciplinary measures are warranted, even if the player is not charged with or convicted of a crime. Any suspension under the personal conduct policy is without pay. The NFL generally allows legal proceedings to play out before making a determination about a potential suspension.
The league also is empowered to take a player off the field while legal proceedings are pending, via the exempt list. The player is paid by his team while on the list but is ineligible to play.
The woman accusing Brown, Britney Taylor, is a former college classmate and a gymnast who worked with Brown as a trainer. In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, she accuses Brown of rape and sexual assault in three separate incidents in 2017 and 2018.
Heitner, Brown’s attorney, said that any sexual relations between Brown and the woman were consensual.
Under the personal conduct policy, the league can place a player on paid administrative leave if he is formally charged with a violent crime. The policy includes the commission of sexual assault under that definition. But while Brown has not been charged with a crime, the conduct policy also authorizes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to place a player on the exempt list if he believes following an investigation that a player may have violated the policy in any of the listed ways.
While on paid leave, a player cannot attend games or practice with his team. He is permitted to attend meetings, participate in workouts and undergo medical treatment at his team’s facility. The paid leave is designed to last until the league makes a decision about potential discipline under the personal conduct policy.
An arbitrator upheld the league’s use of the exempt list for paid leave for players in a 2016 ruling after the NFL Players Association filed a grievance in 2015. The NFL’s use of the commissioner’s exempt list became prominent in the fall of 2014 when the league used it to place running back Adrian Peterson, then with the Minnesota Vikings, and defensive end Greg Hardy, then with the Carolina Panthers, on paid leave while they faced criminal charges in domestic violence cases.