Five days after a woman who was once his trainer filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida accusing him of sexual assault and rape, receiver Antonio Brown made his debut for New England in a 43-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
He caught four passes, one for a 20-yard touchdown, receiving a hug from quarterback Tom Brady and enthusiastic congratulations from teammates. Patriots fans cheered fervently. For the Patriots, legal questions were subjugated in a pursuit of victory against an overmatched opponent.
Asked how he weighed the decision to play Brown, Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach, said: “I’ll talk about the game; I’ve already commented on that. I’m not going to say any more.”
Brown left the New England dressing room before the news media were permitted inside.
Asked if he had any conflicted feelings about whether Brown should have played, Brady said: “I don’t make any of those decisions. I just show up and play and do my job.”
Whether Brady and Brown will continue to play together this season remains uncertain. The N.F.L. is expected to interview Brown’s accuser as soon as Monday. Commissioner Roger Goodell could suspend Brown with pay if he believes “the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so,” according to the N.F.L. Player Personnel Policy.
Brown, 31, has denied any wrongdoing and threatened to countersue. Last week, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office issued a statement saying there were “no prior police investigative contacts regarding these allegations or these individuals.” ESPN reported Sunday that Brown declined an offer to settle the case for a payment of $2 million.
Last Tuesday, the woman, who met Brown about a decade ago when both were students at Central Michigan, filed a lawsuit that described three assaults, two in June 2017 and another in May 2018. Profane messages from Brown were included as evidence in the suit.
The player’s lawyer has said that any sex between the two was consensual.
On New England’s second play on Sunday, Brown, a seven-time Pro Bowler, entered the game to a mix of boos and cheers. Brady immediately made him his preferred receiver with an 18-yard pass over the middle, a 10-yarder to the sideline and an 8-yarder on a curl pattern. Then Brown lured the Dolphins into a holding penalty, which set up the Patriots’ first touchdown, a short run.
Late in the second quarter, 20 yards from the end zone, Brown lined up in the left slot and caught a perfectly thrown fade pass from Brady to put the Patriots up, 13-0. Two Patriots fans caught Brown as he tumbled over a padded wall at the back of the end zone.
The decision to play Brown is certain to bring heightened scrutiny to the Patriots and the N.F.L. The league has been accused of being inconsistent in penalizing players in cases involving accusations of violence against women.
In 2014, the league strengthened its personal conduct policy, saying it would no longer rely only on law enforcement officials’ decisions when weighing whether to fine or suspend a player. Brown’s case appears to have made the league’s decision more complicated because it involves a civil accusation, not a criminal one.
Brown has essentially forced his way off two teams since the end of the 2018 season — the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. Belichick has relished adding what are considered challenging players to the New England roster, a formula that has helped produce six Super Bowl titles. A looming question is whether Brown will remain eligible as the Patriots seek a seventh.
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