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

One of the best receivers in the NFL is ready to walk away from football.

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’s not because he wants to be traded, or that he’s unhappy with his pay — Brown wants 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’s interested in doing. It’s gotten to a point where he’s so insistent on wearing his preferred helmet that Brown has indicated he’s willing to walk away from football entirely unless he’s allowed to keep playing in the equipment he feels comfortable with.

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 which represents the biggest threat to his playing future.

What’s the problem with Brown’s current 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. Theoretically Brown could find a new-in-box Schutt helmet which was manufactured in 2011 and ask NOCSAE to test it — but whether one exists is unclear.

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.

What are Brown’s options?

He can change his helmet or not play football. That seems glib, but currently those are the only options being presented to him by the NFL. In response, Brown filed a grievance against the league over its insistence on him changing helmets. It’s highly unlikely that Brown would win because of the precedent it would set for future players, but it’s another roadblock preventing him from returning to the field.

According to Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic, Brown issued a threat to the NFL: If the league forces him to change helmets and he gets hurt, then he plans to hold the NFL liable for his injury as a result. It’s a curious move designed to make the league blink, but likely would not stand 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 side with Brown in a lawsuit should he get injured considering the helmet doesn’t meet NOCSAE guidelines and the league is trying to get him to change helmets over concern for safety.

If Brown is unhappy now then he’s really going to be mad next season.

NOCSAE has 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.

Could a helmet really end Antonio Brown’s football career?

It seems possible. Make no mistake: This is 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. This isn’t something the league can make an exception for or back down from. Imagine what would happen 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.

So we truly might see one of the best receivers in NFL history hang up his cleats at age 31 over a helmet, leaving millions of dollars on the table in guaranteed money owed to him from his contract. Raiders coach John Gruden has been supportive of Brown, but ultimately the ball is in Brown’s court, and nobody knows where this will end up.

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