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Antonio Brown’s dispute with the NFL over a helmet, explained

One of the best receivers in the NFL dealt with a helmet issue leading up to the 2019 regular season.

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NFL: Oakland Raiders-OTA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Antonio Brown’s bizarre offseason took a turn when news broke that the All-Pro wide receiver was ready to sit out and not play for the Raiders. It wasn’t because he wanted to be traded, or that he was unhappy with his pay — Brown wanted to use his old helmet.

Brown received notice that his helmet, the same one he’s been playing in since his rookie season, is no longer certified for use by the NFL. This means he’s being required by the league to move to a new approved model for the upcoming season, and that isn’t something he was interested in doing. It got to the point where he was so insistent on wearing his preferred helmet that Brown filed a grievance against the NFL and indicated he was willing to walk away from football entirely unless he’s allowed to keep playing in the equipment he feels comfortable with.

However, once the arbitrator ruled against Brown in his grievance hearing, Brown changed his tune for a time:

But that’s not where the story ended.

It’s the latest in a wholly surreal offseason for Brown, which featured him being traded before the draft, then turning up to training camp with frostbitten feet so severe he’s currently being seen by specialists. But as gross and compelling as his feet are, it’s the helmet controversy that represented the biggest threat to his playing future.

What’s the problem with Brown’s preferred helmet?

Essentially nothing, kind of. Brown has been wearing a Schutt Air Advantage as his preferred head gear since 2009. The helmet was popular among receivers in 2014, but since then players have moved on, leaving Brown as the last remaining player trying to hold onto it. The Schutt helmet has not been found to be unsafe, but rather just too old.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is a nonprofit organization responsible for approving athletic equipment for safe play through research and testing. The NFL and NCAA (among others) adhere to NOCSAE standards, which routinely results in players being asked to change helmets and equipment should they fail to meet up those guidelines.

Brown’s Schutt Air Advantage was not found to be an unsafe helmet in testing based on current standard. However, NOCSAE does not approve any athletic equipment that is more than 10 years old, according to Brian McCarthy of the NFL.

The Schutt Air Advantage was discontinued in 2011 as a helmet.

There’s likely an element of superstition to this. Players believe in their equipment. We routinely see kickers playing with one old, mangled cleat for the same reason. Tom Brady had a similar helmet issue in 2018, but he (along with Brown and others) were given a one-year waiver to continue to wear their preferred equipment.

For what it’s worth, Brady has also had a tough time adjusting to his new helmet. “I’ve been experimenting with a couple different ones, and I don’t really love the one that I’m in, but I don’t really have much of a choice,” Brady said on The Greg Hill Show.

What were Brown’s options?

He essentially had three options: change his helmet, find a new version of his preferred model, or not play football. That seems glib, but those were the only realistic options after Brown lost his first grievance.

In his original grievance, according to Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic, Brown issued a threat to the NFL: If the league forced him to change helmets and he got hurt, then he planned to hold the NFL liable for his injury as a result.

It was a curious move designed to make the league blink, but even if that happened, it likely would not have stood up in court. It presupposes that football is inherently safe when Brown is wearing a Schutt Air Advantage, and potentially unsafe when he’s not. It seems highly improbable a court would’ve sided with Brown in a lawsuit should he get injured, considering the helmet doesn’t meet NOCSAE guidelines and the league was trying to get him to change helmets over concern for safety.

There was one potential out revealed soon after: Pro Football Talk reported that the NFL would let Brown wear a Schutt Air Advantage, provided he could find one that was manufactured after 2010 and that it could be certified.

How did Brown get his new helmet?

To start with, Brown took to social media to try to track down a helmet:

Brown’s method worked. First he found one that was made in 2010, but it failed the NFL’s testing. A 2014 version was supposed to be tested after that, but Brown expected that to fail too.

Shortly after that, Brown filed his second grievance in an attempt to wear his old helmet:

As expected, Brown lost that grievance as well. Then the real solution came through:

Previously, Brown said he was “working with the NFL to follow all the procedures to be out there in the right equipment,” though he quickly became displeased when the 2014 helmet didn’t pass inspection. He then missed Raiders practice the next day.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden was supportive of Brown throughout this whole ordeal, though once Brown another missed practice, general manager Mike Mayock showed the first signs of organization frustration.

Mayock said the team needed to know if he’s going to be “all-in or all-out.”

“He’s upset about the helmet issue,” Mayock said. “We have supported that, we appreciate that. But this point we’ve pretty much exhausted all avenues of relief.”

The message from Mayock may have hit home, because Brown ended his absence the next day and was practicing again with a helmet. Gruden commented his star acquisition was “all in” with his new team.

Then finally, a few days before the Raiders’ season opener, Brown’s new helmet was unveiled:

Soooo, is the Antonio Brown helmet saga over?

With the helmet itself, maybe. But make no mistake: This was one of the strangest incidents of a player taking on the NFL in recent history, maybe ever.

NFL players are forced to make equipment changes all the time because of NOCSAE testing. The league was never going to make an exception for or back down from this. Imagine what would’ve happened if the NFL granted Brown an exemption only to have him suffer a severe concussion, or worse. It’s a potential PR nightmare the already-nervous NFL doesn’t need when it comes to brain injury.

NOCSAE has also issued a new safety standard for football helmets that will go into effect November 2019. In addition to currently accepted drop-testing, this requires football helmets to also pass pneumatic ram testing, which is designed to better simulate a hit in a football game.

This means that every helmet currently being worn by NFL players will need to pass a new round of testing in order to be approved for the 2020 season. This could mean across the league helmets will either need to be altered to meet the new standard or redesigned entirely.

In short: A lot is going to change in football helmets.

The good news is that one of the best receivers in NFL history isn’t hanging up his cleats at age 31 over a helmet. The bad news is there’s still more drama surrounding Brown.

What happened to Brown and the Raiders?

Brown was all set to make his Raiders debut in Week 1 against the Broncos.

However, a few days before the start of the season, he revealed that he had been fined by the team for missing practice earlier and was not happy about it:

That led to a confrontation with Mayock, which in turn looked like it was leading to a suspension:

However, Brown later apologized to the team and Gruden said “the plan” is for Brown to make his Raiders debut on Monday Night Football.

Hours later, Brown posted a video on YouTube that included a recorded phone conversation with Gruden, who called the receiver “the most misunderstood fucking human being” but also urged Brown to “just play football.”

While it’s unclear if Gruden was aware he was being recorded — California’s law requires both parties to consent to any wiretapping — a source told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that Gruden thought the video was “awesome.” This did not prevent the club from fining Brown $215,000 and voiding more than $29 million in guarantees in his contract for conduct detrimental to the team.

With his financial safety net gone, Brown publicly called for his release in order to move on from Oakland.

Brown told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington he changed his mind about being a Raider after the team “took away my (contract) guarantees. No way I play after they took that and made my contract week to week.”

The Raiders granted Brown’s request, and soon after he signed a one-year deal with the Patriots.

The helmet issue might be solved, but the AB drama is far from over. Once again, it’s best to stay tuned.