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An Idiot’s Guide to the Antonio Brown Helmet Grievance

The end is in sight for the highest-profile headwear argument in NFL history. But you’re probably still wondering how we got here.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is an episode of Hey Arnold! in which Helga steals Arnold’s hat. Arnold’s worn his hat for as long as he can remember and without it he barely recognizes himself. His upbeat, jovial personality disappears. While all of the other kids are outside, Arnold refuses to leave his apartment. All his friends are begging him to come play, but Arnold says he’ll never go outside again. When Willie the Jolly Olly man gives away free ice cream and Arnold still doesn’t come outside, everyone realizes he’s serious about this hat thing.

Gerald, Arnold’s best friend and sage counsel, tells him to buy another one. It’s just a hat.

“You don’t understand,” Arnold says. “My hat is special. It’s part of me. I’m just not the same without my hat.”

Everything else from the 1990s is getting a reboot, so of course Antonio Brown is our modern-day Arnold. Brown’s helmet has been taken from him and he refuses to come outside and play until he gets it back. Brown already pulled the NFL power play of the decade by strong-arming the Steelers into trading him (costing them more than $20 million against the salary cap in the process) to the Raiders, who had to give up only a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder for the wideout and promptly gave him a $12 million bump in guaranteed money. Now Brown is trying to become the only player in the NFL who can wear an unapproved helmet, despite the fact stars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have acquiesced on similar helmet issues. In a story that involves frostbite, forging helmet paint jobs like the end of The Thomas Crown Affair, and a refusal to part with inanimate objects, the wildest part is that Brown has a point, and that an arbiter could rule in his favor as soon as Friday.

For those who have had trouble following this saga (or have ignored the finer details until now), here is what you need to know about the Antonio Brown situation ahead of his hearing.

What the hell(met) is going on?

The NFL is phasing out unsafe helmets, including the one Brown has worn his entire nine-year career. This infuriated him so much that the 31-year-old stormed out of Oakland’s offseason practices in May and reportedly returned to practice with his old helmet painted with Raiders colors, apparently hoping either nobody would notice or nobody would say anything about it. They did, and they did. This was chronicled in a Twitter thread by NFL.com’s Mike Silver that reads like a Spotlight investigation.

By training camp, the Raiders were concerned about Brown’s feet (more on that later) but believed the helmet saga was over. It was not. Brown arrived for training camp, left to treat his blistered feet, and extended the absence in protest over his helmet. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported he was willing to stay away forever, though Brown has denied he would retire over his helmet.

Two weeks after he left camp, Brown returned once he believed he had found a loophole that would let him wear his helmet and tweeted out the following:

When he found out that loophole wouldn’t work, he left again. He has since returned to practice, but in the portions open to the media, he has not participated in helmet-related activities, which is everything except stretching.

Did Brown seriously offer to trade a signed helmet for the helmet he wants to wear?

Yes. For context, Brown will lose a paycheck of more than $860,000 for every game that he misses. Meanwhile, an Antonio Brown–signed Raiders helmet is going on Amazon Prime right now for $279.99.

Before we get any further, what is the deal with his feet?

Athletes are super into cryotherapy for recovery these days, where the temperature can drop to negative 150 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Brown did not wear proper footwear for cryotherapy and essentially gave himself frostbite. The pictures, which I will not embed here, are not for the faint of heart but probably really cool for the people who love pimple-popping videos.

There is no remedy (or, as guard Richie Incognito put it, “oils and shit”) for Brown’s ailment. The only solution is to cut the dead skin off the bottom of his feet and wait for the new skin to grow back. He is already healthy enough to practice and would be ready to play in Week 1—if he shows up.

Did Jon Gruden have an excellent one-liner about Brown’s feet on Hard Knocks?

Obviously. During practice one day Gruden asked Brown whether his feet hurt.

“When it’s real hot that shit starts to burn, I’ve got to take my shoes off,” Brown says.

“Why don’t you go to a cryochamber?” Gruden asks.

Why doesn’t he just wear a new helmet?

Like anyone who relies on routine to reach greatness, athletes hate change. Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk said earlier this month on his podcast that when he played in the NFL he was too superstitious to change out his thigh pads. If you know someone who wears the same hat everyday (hey, Arnold!) try taking it from them and see how they respond.

Having said that, even one of Brown’s own teammates told Silver that Brown’s refusal to wear a new helmet was “honestly the most insane thing I have ever heard. I don’t know why it’s so important to him. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told Jon Gruden on Hard Knocks (in a scene clearly staged for the cameras) that changing helmets was hard for Brown.

“It’s hard [to change after] nine years and you kick ass and you don’t have any injuries,” Rosenhaus said. “I’m not saying we handled it the right way …”

Rosenhaus elaborated on ESPN’s Get Up! on August 19.

”He wore this helmet in Pee Wee football, high school football, college at Central Michigan, and his entire nine-year career,” Rosenhaus said. “People keep saying to me there’s 2,000 players that are wearing approved helmets. But there are very few, if any, that have worn the same helmet their entire nine-year career.”

Rosenhaus went on to note that Brown is a receiver often playing over the middle at risk of being hit, noting Brown has been concussed before and arguing that Brown’s helmet has kept the wideout safe.

“The helmet is the most important piece of equipment, and he’s had the same one every single snap he’s played in his football career. It is a major issue for him.”

Or, as Brown himself said in one of the few moments on the show when he was wearing the approved helmet, “this lid ugly as fuck.”

Why does the NFL care?

Brown’s helmet offers less concussion protection than almost every other model available. After a decade of denying, obscuring, and covering up the connection between long-term brain injury and football, the NFL is trying to make the game safer (or at least give the appearance of doing so). One way is by phasing out old helmets, which were designed solely to keep players alive and not paralyzed, while newer ones check those two boxes and also reduce the risk of concussions.

Is his helmet really more dangerous than other helmets?

Since the 1970s, football helmets have been designed solely to prevent paralysis and death from skull fractures or brain bleeds. Even today, NOCSAE, the only government regulator of helmets, grades them solely on a pass/fail test for the risk of traumatic head injuries, and helmets that pass can be sold in the United States. It was not until 2011 (!) that the NFL and independent researchers began grading helmets for how well they protected against concussions.

One of those independent researchers is Steve Rowson, a biomedical engineering professor at Virginia Tech and the director of the university’s Helmet Lab. The Helmet Lab assigns helmets safety ratings from one to five stars for how well they protect against concussions. It’s similar to the five-star safety rating for cars. Antonio Brown’s preferred helmet model, the Schutt AiR Advantage, earned just two out of five stars from the Helmet Lab and was the third-lowest rated out of 25 helmet models tested. That test was more than five years ago, and many safer models have been produced since, making the Schutt AiR Advantage even more obsolete. For context on what a two-star rating means, Rowson says that a four-star helmet reduces the risk of a concussion compared to a one-star helmet by 50 percent. He agrees with the NFL’s assessment that the Schutt AiR Advantage is not good enough in 2019.

”I don’t think anyone should still be wearing that helmet,” Rowson says.

Have other players complained about not getting to wear their helmets?

Yes, but not to this extent. In 2018, the league gave a one-year grace period to a handful of players whose preferred helmets were being phased out, including Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. (Yes, Tom Brady won the Super Bowl with a helmet the NFL believes is unsafe.) San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley, another one of the 32 veterans who had the one-year grace period last year but was forced to change helmets in 2019, told Pro Football Talk’s Peter King that forcing players to change helmets was a good idea.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley said in 2018. “And I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

The plan was that everyone would have to wear an approved helmet beginning in 2019 with no exceptions. But because the NFL left Brown’s preferred model off the list of banned helmets until this month, Brown may get his own one-year grace period in 2019 if he prevails in arbitration.

Will he get to wear the helmet?

We’ll find out on Friday. He has a better case than you’d think. The first time he filed his grievance (a complaint filed under the NFL and NFLPA’s collective bargaining agreement, not the legal system, and heard by an arbitrator), he challenged that he had the right to wear his helmet. To paraphrase the arbiter in that case:

[Closes eyes and puts hands over ears.] “Lalalalalalala I can’t hear you, your helmet is 10 years old and the rules clearly say no 10-year-old helmets are allowed.”

Brown lost decisively, but from the ashes of that meeting Brown and Rosenhaus found a loophole: Brown could wear the same version of his helmet if they found a model less than 10 years old. Hence his tweet looking for a newer version in exchange for a signed helmet.

The reason this loophole was possible was because the league had produced a list of banned helmets, but somehow the Schutt AiR Advantage was not on it. In fact, the league had not even tested the Schutt AiR Advantage model. (Rowson guessed that the helmet slipped through the cracks because the company stopped manufacturing it before the NFL started testing helmets.) Whatever the reason, it created a massive loophole for a player famously good in tight spaces. Brown reportedly found multiple versions of his preferred (and unsafe) helmet that would fit the requirements.

This was a problem for the NFL. It did not want to be seen as making an exception for Brown or being too incompetent to enforce its safety policies. To prevent Brown from wearing a newer version of the same helmet, the league fast-tracked the Schutt AiR Advantage for testing. It failed. The NFL used the test to add the model to the list of banned helmets, closing the loophole so that Brown wouldn’t be able to wear any version of it, even if it was less than 10 years old.

But while the NFL closed a door, it opened a window. Brown filed a second grievance this week questioning whether the NFL was allowed to add the helmet to the banned list on such short notice. The league and the Raiders have been happy to point out that other players like Rodgers and Brady were given the 2018 season as a one-year grace period to use helmets on the banned list and then gave up their helmets this year. But Brown is arguing in his grievance that he was not given a one-year notice that all Schutt AiR Advantages would be banned. He was told this week, less than a month before the season begins, after the NFL rushed to test the helmet when it realized its own rules left the league exposed. An arbiter could certainly find Brown’s argument compelling. If Brown wins, he might be able to wear one of those helmets he found via Twitter this year and be the only player in the NFL with a nonapproved helmet.

That would be a pretty similar scenario to how that episode of Hey Arnold! ended. Helga eventually realizes she made a mistake and gives Arnold his hat back. Secretly she is relieved the hat saga is over, but outwardly she pretends to be angry with Arnold even though she knows it was her fault.

Yet by the time that Arnold gets his hat back, a pep talk from his grandpa Phil has already snapped Arnold out of his funk and restored his self-confidence.

“You’re who you are because of what’s on the inside, not the outside,” Grandpa Phil tells him. Even after Grandpa Phil leaves the room, we hear his words reverberate in Arnold’s head.

You are who you are because of what’s on the inside, not the outside. The inside, not the outside. Are you listening, Arnold? The inside, not the outside.

Brown may win special status to wear a helmet that puts him at a greater risk for concussion for the 10th year in a row, though it’s an unnecessary risk to take. More important is whether anyone in his life is giving him the same message Grandpa Phil gave Arnold, and whether that message is reverberating in Brown’s head.