Free AB? Roger Goodell gives vague message on Antonio Brown: 'We'll let you know'

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

If Antonio Brown was hoping for some sign that his days under NFL investigation were coming to an end, he was undoubtedly disappointed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday.

In his first public comments regarding the league’s investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against Brown, Goodell gave no timeline for a conclusion. Instead, Goodell delivered an opaque status update and something along the lines of an I don’t know anything shrug.

“We’re still working at that,” Goodell said from the league’s fall meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I will probably be getting an update when I get back to New York, but our folks have been working diligently on that, going through materials. There’s a lot of material to go through. When we reach a conclusion, we’ll obviously let you know.”

Antonio Brown is still under league investigation for alleged sexual misconduct. (USA TODAY Sports)
Antonio Brown is still under league investigation for alleged sexual misconduct. (USA TODAY Sports)

However NFL teams view Goodell’s words, his open-ended answer will likely only further the notion that Brown seemed to suggest with an Oct. 15 tweet that read “Free AB”. While there’s no implication from that message, it’s believed to dovetail with what sources close to Brown have been privately suggesting: That the NFL is purposely dragging its feet on an investigation to strand Brown on a free-agent desert island. It’s a sort of purgatory that was essentially created on Sept. 20, when the NFL released a statement warning that if Brown were to be signed by a team, his eligibility to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list “may become appropriate at any time depending on the status of the investigation.” A stay on the exempt list would mean that a team could sign Brown and have to pay him, but not be allowed to play him in a game while he was still on the list. The statement further warned: “[Brown] may also be subject to discipline if the investigation finds that he has violated the law or league policies.”

Multiple team officials who spoke with Yahoo Sports characterized that message as a warning shot from the league to essentially stay away from Brown.

That’s a powerful suggestion, particularly when it’s coming on top of all of Brown’s other issues. Lest anyone have lost track of it all, Brown has engaged in or is being engaged by: a federal civil lawsuit alleging rape and sexual assault; a bizarre civil suit involving alleged property destruction; multiple grievances against his past two teams, the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots; a reported vaguely threatening text-messaging incident toward a woman who spoke about Brown in a Sports Illustrated story; and of course, a stream of high-profile social media posts that have only served to turn up the volume on the drama around him.

Absorb all of that and then consider what Goodell said from the fall meetings and it appears unlikely he’ll be signing anywhere until the league’s investigators reach some kind of resolution. To teams that have had players under the league’s nebulous investigation, Goodell’s non-answer response is somewhat reminiscent of the long, drawn-out Ezekiel Elliott investigation, which went on for over one year before the NFL suspended the Dallas Cowboys running back. A length of time that included repeated messages from the league to the Cowboys that investigators were “working diligently” on the case. If anything, that kind of phrasing involving Brown is another red flag that lets teams know he is under the cloud of an investigation that is not going away until the league announces some kind of sanctions or that it has concluded its work. Making matters more complicated for Brown, he doesn't have a team owner like Jerry Jones to lean on the league to wrap up the work in an expedited manner.

That’s part of why Goodell can say “we’ll obviously let you know” about the status of Brown and not have anyone up in arms. There’s little doubt that he wasn’t just responding to reporters about Brown’s status — he was likely responding to Brown, too.

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For now, Antonio Brown doesn’t seem to be free of the NFL’s probe. And that may not change anytime soon.

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