Four days after wide receiver Antonio Brown threw off his helmet and dashed off the field in the middle of a game against the New York Jets, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have terminated his contract, effective immediately, the team announced Thursday.
"While Antonio did receive treatment on his ankle and was listed on the injury report the week leading up to last Sunday's game, he was cleared to play by our medical team prior to the start of the game and at no point during the game did he indicate to our medical personnel that he could not play.
"We have attempted, multiple times throughout this week, to schedule an evaluation by an outside orthopedic specialist, yet Antonio has not complied. Maintaining the health and wellness of our players is of the utmost importance to our organization."
Brown and attorney Sean Burstyn said Wednesday that the wide receiver told the Buccaneers he was too hurt to continue playing on an injured ankle, but coach Bruce Arians rebutted having any knowledge of the nature of his outburst, nor did he say Brown communicated to him or to the training staff that his ankle was bothering him.
"At no point during that game did he ever ask the trainer or doctor about his ankle -- that's the normal protocol," Arians said Thursday. "We go through protocols during games. I was never notified of it. Obviously that was a disturbing thing. We were looking for him to go back into the game."
Arians said Brown was agitated at halftime of Sunday's game against the Jets about not getting the targets he was expecting and that he had to be calmed down.
Brown's attorney told ESPN that the receiver's ankle injury, and not targets, was the source of Brown's frustration.
To that, Arians responded with a chuckle: "The players know the truth."
Things escalated in the third quarter.
"We called for the personnel group that he had played in the entire game. He refused to go in the game," Arians said. "That's when I looked back and saw him basically wave off the coach. I then went back, approached him about what was going on."
Arians said Brown said, "I ain't playing."
Arians said he asked, "What's going on?"
He said Brown responded with, "I ain't getting the ball."
"That's when I said, 'You're done, get the F out of here," said Arians, who added that he pointed to the exits and did not make a throat slashing gesture, which Brown accused him of.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht told ESPN on Thursday that Brown and his agent requested last week that the remaining $2 million in contract incentives for this season be guaranteed. The team declined that request, but Arians said he has always supported Brown's and every other player's quests to meet their incentives.
Brown, who missed 10 weeks (9 games) this season due to injury and suspension, was 28 catches, 255 receiving yards and three touchdowns away from meeting the criteria for that $2 million.
In Wednesday's statement, Brown said he was forced to play on an injured ankle that will require surgery, which is why he exited Sunday's game so abruptly in the third quarter.
Arians said he would never force a player to play while injured.
"You can't force a player to play," Arians said. "They have that choice. It's their body. He decided to play. He and Mike [Evans] both were on pitch counts. We were trying to manage that as best we could in the first half."
An NFL spokesperson told ESPN on Thursday that Brown would not be subject to league discipline for his actions during Sunday's game. The NFL also declined to comment when asked by ESPN whether the league was looking into Brown's allegations against the Bucs.
Upset on the sideline, Brown, who had been on the field for 26 plays, took off his jersey, pads and undershirt, and he threw his shirt and gloves into the stands. He then dashed across the end zone while both teams were on the field and waved to fans as he went to the locker room.
He accused the Buccaneers of mischaracterizing his outburst on the field as a "mental health issue" rather than as a refusal to play due to pain.
Licht said Brown did not tell anyone on the Bucs medical staff on Sunday about his ankle bothering him before or during the game.
Licht said that the Buccaneers made "reasonable accommodations" to bring this matter to a close early this week, if in fact Brown had an injury from the game, and that the wide receiver declined to cooperate.
Brown on Wednesday said that he underwent an MRI on Monday that revealed broken bone fragments, a ligament torn from the bone and cartilage loss. He also said the Bucs tried to send him to a "junior doctor," versus the two he sought in New York City, including Dr. Martin O'Malley at Hospital for Special Surgery, where he had scheduled surgery. He claims the Bucs gave him a "few hours' notice to show up "and "ordered him under penalty of discipline."
Licht told ESPN that the Bucs made two doctors' appointments in New York for Brown so they could place him on injured reserve and pay him for the remainder of the year and that he missed both appointments. The team still could have put him on injured reserve if Brown sent over his medical records, but he did not return their texts and calls, Licht said.
Licht said the Bucs also could have set up those appointments in Tampa but said that they knew Brown was in New York and that they believed they were trying to oblige him. Brown and his agent declined to send the Bucs his medical information from their doctor visit this week, Licht said, and he still has not returned the team's calls.
On Thursday morning, Brown posted screenshots to social media of text exchanges with Arians from Thursday, Dec. 30, and Friday about the status of his ankle, captioned on Instagram with, "Coach said we never talked."
Arians said that he did correspond with Brown during the week about the ankle, and he said the text messages Brown posted on Instagram of their conversation were authentic.
"You saw the text," Arians said. "If you can go on Saturday, I want you with the team. In case you can go. He participated in the Saturday walk-through like he was going. There was never another question about it."
But that conversation did not take place on the sideline, Arians said.
In another post, Brown said none of his teammates knew about the alleged discussion with Arians.
"Don't get it twisted. My brothers have been good to me. From Tom [Brady] to practice squad, we were a top-level unit," Brown posted to Twitter. "They have been good to me and knew nothing about my talks with coach last week. The team mishandled this situation. They let me down and, more importantly, my teammates."
He also posted a grievance Thursday about a deal with Brady's trainer Alex Guerrero and tagged Brady in the posts, saying, "@TomBrady guy @ag_TB12 charging $100K never doing the work on me! how u even work wit people like this! This is what I was dealing wit." He posted something similar on Twitter, which he later took down, with, "... must be was apart of these guys plans all Along."
Said Brady on Thursday: "I think there's a lot of personal feelings. I don't think it's really the week to discuss it, though. I'm just gonna do the best I can do as quarterback of the team, try to put together a great week and finish strong. You just always deal with different things over the course of a season. That's what we're doing this week."
Brown suffered the ankle injury in Week 6 and missed five games. He then was suspended for three games after an NFL investigation found that he had produced a fake COVID-19 vaccination card.
He returned in Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers, catching 10 passes for 101 receiving yards. But he also aggravated the injury and, as a result, was a nonparticipant in Thursday and Friday practices last week and was officially questionable leading into the Jets game.
Arians was not at those practices because he was quarantining at home after testing positive for COVID-19, but he was kept abreast of all practices and player status updates.
Arians said he had no indication that things were different with Brown coming off his suspension when he returned two weeks ago, nor was there an issue this week. He said he was surprised at the way things unraveled.
"I'm hurt, but I still wish the best for him," Arians said of Brown, whom he has known since Arians was offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers when Brown was drafted. "Just get the help you need."
Burstyn said he feels the Bucs keep changing their story.
"If Antonio could pivot on his ankle as quickly as the Bucs have backtracked their prior version of events, none of this would have ever happened," Burstyn told ESPN on Thursday afternoon. "They are now on their fourth version of events in as many days."