Opinion: Antonio Brown reaches new low and now must pay the price – USA TODAY

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Maybe Antonio Brown was scared. 

Maybe he – along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate Mike Edwards and former teammate John Franklin III – worried about side effects from the COVID-19 vaccination, just like many other Americans, who have opted against getting the shot.

We don’t really know, and given Brown’s history, it’s hard to find logic in much of what the talented yet troubled wide receiver does.

But we do know this: If, as alleged, he used a fake vaccination card to give the appearance of satisfying league protocol, Brown has lowered himself to the lowest of lows.

Not did he and the other two players apparently deceive the NFL and their employer, they also betrayed the trust of their coaches and teammates.

On Thursday, the NFL leveled a three-game suspension against the three player for misrepresenting their vaccination status, though the league and NFL Players Association provided no further details.

But the Buccaneers should carry the punishment a step further and release Brown, who came to the team last year with a checkered past after volatile and disruptive behavior while with the Steelers and Raiders, and troubling off-field actions that prompted his release after a short stint with the Patriots.

Once again, he has proven himself to be a selfish individual who doesn’t believe rules or the law applies to him. This time, his decisions could have carried consequences that extended well beyond himself.

And this wasn’t just a mistake, or some matter of personal or religious conviction. 

If they did secure fake vaccination cards, Brown and the two other players deliberately gave the NFL and their team the finger, but in the shadiest of ways.

Brown, Edwards and Franklin all seemingly believed they had figured out a way to beat the system. And for a while, they had. Had it not been for Brown’s former chef, Steven Ruiz, who put his former employer on blast while also accusing the wide receiver of failing to pay him $10,000 in wages, Brown and Co. may have continued to skate.

All because they wanted to live the good life.

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The NFL and NFLPA have agreed to strict protocols, which makes life a lot less enjoyable for unvaccinated players. 

They must be subject to daily COVID-19 testing. They must wear masks indoors. They can’t eat with their teammates, can’t leave their hotel rooms, can’t attend large gatherings.

Those who have received the vaccine can, for the most part, conduct their lives in a normal manner.

Brown, Edwards and Franklin didn’t want to get the vaccine at some point, and that’s fine. (Multiple reports say all three have since been vaccinated.) There are plenty of NFL players who weren’t comfortable with getting the vaccine, and because of that, they accept the restrictions they must follow.

But Brown and Co. didn’t want to live such rigid lives. 

And so, they decided the best way to gain freedom was to lie.

Let’s not lump these guys in with Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback drew the ire of some fans and some media members, and even some league insiders, because he responded to reporters’ questions about his vaccination status by saying “I have been immunized” and allowed them to think that meant vaccinated.

Rodgers didn’t want to deal with the public backlash to his decision not to get the shot. 

But he was fully forthcoming with his team, and he adhered to the requirements of daily testing. He was fined $14,650 for attending a Halloween party.

This isn’t the same thing.

Coaches and players lie in news conferences all the time. But what matters in this regard is how they operate behind closed doors.

Now, Brown adds yet another black mark to his tarnished legacy that includes outbursts, immaturity, disruptive behavior in forcing his way off of two teams and allegations of domestic abuse.

Brown came to the Buccaneers knowing that he had to work to repair his image and to remain in the good graces of an organization that followed the urgings of Tom Brady and gave him a fourth chance.

He added another dimension to an offense that already boasts talented receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brown recorded a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl win over Kansas City in February.

Did he feel like a return to the mountain top restored his invincibility?

Because of his physical gifts, the Buccaneers could be inclined to let Brown off with the three-game slap on the wrist. But if they really care about sending a strong message of accountability and honesty to the younger members of their team, they should cut him.

He didn’t just trick the team. He could have exposed a host of teammates to a COVID-19 outbreak that could have shut Tampa Bay down for a week or two. This year, the NFL warned teams that if games are postponed due to COVID-19 and can’t be made up, they’re on the hook for the financial losses, and the players do not receive paychecks.

Brown knew all of this and still decided to fake his vaccination status. 

He’s fortunate that the worst – a COVID-19 outbreak, losses of finances and even serious ailments or death – did not take place.

The Bucs very well could be breathing a sigh of relief as well.

But they shouldn’t let Brown skate. It’s always something with him, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds a way to screw up again.

Outbursts, arguments with coaches, unruly management of personal life … that’s all bad enough. But this time, Brown’s selfishness could have truly proved costly in a real life sense.

And for that, Brown should pay the price.