Had Antonio Brown not sent intimidating group text messages to a female artist who accused him of unwanted sexual advances last week, the star wide receiver would be playing in the New England Patriots' game Sunday against the New York Jets, league sources told ESPN.
But when Brown sent those text messages as a member of the Patriots -- he was not with New England during the time period when he allegedly sexually assaulted another woman -- the organization felt that it had to move on from him, sources said.
"That crossed the line," one source familiar with the organization's thinking told ESPN. "This was real evidence."
Now the question becomes how New England handles Brown's departure. The Patriots are expected to withhold the $9 million signing bonus they agreed to pay Brown when he signed; $5 million is due Monday and the other $4 million is due Jan. 15, 2020.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that Brown will file a grievance Monday to try to recoup that money, setting up a legal battle between the player and team.
Among other factors, New England will lean on the "representation and warranty" clause in Brown's contract that specifically states: "Player represent warrants and covenants to the club that he will 1) execute in good faith and to the best of his ability all of his obligations to and for the club; 2) he does not and will not participate and is not engaged or will not engage in any conduct or activity that is illegal, unlawful or immoral. And 3) No circumstances exist that would prevent player's continuing availability to the club for the duration of the contract."
However, other NFL sources strongly believe that the Patriots eventually will owe Brown the $9 million. Those sources insist that once a signing bonus is earned, it's earned, and there's no turning back.
"They are going to lose," one NFL executive predicted about the Patriots' plight in a potential financial battle with Brown.
Brown called out Patriots owner Robert Kraft as part of his Sunday morning Twitter tirade, referring to Kraft's ongoing case in Florida in which he was charged with solicitation for allegedly receiving a sex act at a massage parlor. After the tweets, a source told ESPN that "Kraft [is] never writing that check, no matter what the ruling is now."
Brown has deleted the tweet referring to Kraft.
Brown was officially released by the Patriots on Friday, one day after the lawyer for the female artist reached out to the NFL because Brown apparently sent what were described as threatening text messages to her client.
The sides spoke Friday morning, with the woman's attorneys saying in a statement that the league "pledged to conduct a thorough investigation under its Personal Conduct Policy." According to that statement, the league also contacted the Patriots, who then directed Brown to have no further contact with the woman.
As part of a Sports Illustrated report published Monday, the woman accused Brown of sexual misconduct when she was working at his Pennsylvania home in 2017.
Brown also has been accused of sexually assaulting his former trainer, Britney Taylor, according to a lawsuit she filed Sept. 10. Taylor met with the NFL this past Monday. A source had told ESPN that there are "more interviews and information-gathering being conducted now beyond Taylor."
It remains unclear when or if Brown will interview with the league. He is an unrestricted free agent eligible to sign with any team, and the NFL said Friday that Brown would not be placed on the commissioner's exempt list while he is a free agent.
But the league also warned, "If he is signed by a club, such placement may become appropriate at any time depending on the status of the investigation."