FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick was determined to avoid the elephant in the room.
When he walked to the podium in front of a jam-packed press room, he started with an opening statement focused on Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
Only after about a minute of talking about Miami’s “strong kicking game” did he address the lawsuit accusing new Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown of sexual assault and rape, saying simply that the team, Brown and Brown’s representatives had released statements and he wouldn’t be expanding on the matter further.
The frenzy soon followed.
Over the course of a surreal four minutes, Belichick was grilled by reporters about Brown:
When did he find out about the allegations? Did he know when Brown was signed? Will Brown play on Sunday?
Per the norm, Belichick refused to give an inch, with the scene culminating in a tense exchange where Belichick was asked if Brown had said anything to him about the lawsuit.
“I’m done with that, OK?!” Belichick said. “Anything else on Miami? Any other questions?”
“Can you explain what you mean by you’re done with it?” the reporter followed up. “We’re just trying to find out if he said anything to you about the allegations.”
Belichick said, “Yeah, and I just answered that question.”
“Well, actually you didn’t,” said the reporter.
“Actually I did,” snapped Belichick.
Despite the fireworks, Wednesday’s press conference left several key questions unanswered:
Did the Patriots know about Brown’s impending legal troubles before the lawsuit became public? If so, when did they find out? Before he was signed? Afterwards?
The only question that Belichick did answer was that Brown would practice that afternoon — and he did indeed take the field with his new teammates shortly before 1 p.m. — but beyond that the team would take things day by day. The league is reportedly investigating the matter and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could conceivably place Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list to keep him off the field. But if that doesn’t happen, there’s a good chance Brown could suit up for the Patriots in Miami this weekend.
WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL?
First, let’s start with what we do know.
On Tuesday a federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Florida accusing Brown of three separate incidents of sexual assault and rape in June 2017 and May 2018. The 15-page civil suit, brought by a former trainer named Britney Taylor who had known Brown since their days at Central Michigan, alleges that Brown twice engaged in unwanted sexual contact during training sessions, prompting Taylor to end their working relationship.
Several months later, Brown allegedly called Taylor to apologize, and she relented after being assured that Brown would “cease any sexual advances.” The suit then alleges that on May 20, 2018, Brown forcibly raped her in an incident at his Miami home.
Brown and his representatives have since denied every allegation. Attorney Darren Heitner said in a statement that any sexual contact between the two was consensual, and that the lawsuit is an attempt at extortion. Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus went on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Wednesday declaring the suit a “money grab.”
More details will surely come out in the coming days and weeks, but regardless of what happens, this is shaping up to be a sordid and heavily scrutinized story that threatens to dominate the NFL season.
This is exactly the kind of distraction that Belichick hates, and yet even if he didn’t know about the pending lawsuit when signing Brown, he still gambled on his talent despite a long and well-documented history of erratic behavior.
And if he knew and signed Brown anyway? That would be shameful, and frankly, unnecessary.
The Patriots didn’t need any of this.
The defending Super Bowl champs don’t need Antonio Brown -- see opening night blowout, 33-3 over the Steelers -- and they don’t need to associate with all of the problems he brings. They have a championship-caliber defense, a cavalcade of offensive weapons and the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Does adding Brown help the Patriots on the field? Probably.
But being willing to put up with frostbitten feet and some social media antics is a long way from standing by an accused rapist, and the Patriots will have some big decisions to make as this story develops.
One thing is for sure, before Tuesday the Antonio Brown story was a circus. Now it’s starting to look more like a real tragedy.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.