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  • On the surface, it may look like Antonio Brown is walking out on a playoff-caliber team. But he's just the latest player to flex in the face of his NFL franchise (following Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Le’Veon Bell)—and he's winning this fight.
By Conor Orr
February 19, 2019

You can have a million reactions to the strange, black-and-white photo posted to Antonio Brown’s Twitter account on Tuesday morning.

Here’s one of the best players in Steelers’ history, mustache dyed blonde, with his arm around the team’s owner who basically just got told to kick rocks. The clock is now on for the franchise to trade himand the more mercurial Brown’s tactics become to bazooka his way out of Pittsburgh, the harder it will be for other teams to convince themselves that they should meet the high-end asking price.

Make no mistake, 31 other clubs would meet Brown with open arms for at least another season. But as NFL Network reported recently, the consensus among league executives is that trading a third-round pick makes sense. That’s the return for a player who hasn’t missed more than two games in a season since 2012, and has been voted to the Pro Bowl every season since ’13.

You can call Brown crazy, call him selfish, call him a diva of the brown M&Ms only order. You can say he’s trashing his legacy of a once-plucky sixth-round pick who outworked all the premiere talent on the field. But don’t miss for a second the fact that this is the face of a man getting what he wants. He is winning in an age of unprecedented power tipped in favor of ownership. Despite being the favored target of a quarterback entering the final stanza of his career, it seems Brown will be playing elsewhere in 2019.

That, or the Steelers brace themselves for another season-long journey through the collective bargaining agreement’s Forfeiture of Salary section, trying to ignore the ghost of someone sure to haunt the facility for the remainder of the season. If Pittsburgh did go the route of withholding salary, Brown would almost certainly file a grievance.

Rarely have we seen a calendar year full of so many players withstanding the vast arsenal at the disposal of NFL teams. Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Le’Veon Bell—in some cases, they lost. In some cases, they were paid. In some cases, they were dealt out of football hell, made to be the centerpiece of a championship caliber defense. You can certainly question Brown’s path, asking if walking out on a team that still had playoff aspirations was fair or noble, but isn’t there a little bit of that in all of us? Haven’t we all had moments where we just want to flip our desk, smash the copier and come out the other side in a better situation with a one-finger salute held high?

Players are learning not to care, and to treat and protect their body like a business. There was a time when doing what was best for you was couched as football treason and betrayal by fans. But many of us wouldn’t hesitate to hit the eject button on a job if the situation became untenable around us. Many of us would explore another company if we were offered more money, or the chance to work with our friends, or the opportunity to be closer to our family.

When the next collective bargaining agreement is haggled over, who knows what kind of new vice grips will be put in place to keep star players stationary. Maybe the NBA is, ultimately, a cautionary tale for years down the road if all the good players try and place themselves in the same orbit. Maybe we’ve succumbed a bit to hyperbole, and guys like Mack, Bell and Brown are not a sign of things to come.

In the coming days, there’s a chance we hear more about Brown and why the situation was reduced to this moment and this strange photograph. Maybe we’ll hear something that makes us favor the Steelers. Maybe we’ll hear something that makes us dislike Brown. It will be hard to imagine him caring, though, if he ends up taking snaps somewhere other than Pittsburgh a few months from now.

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