“The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil” Labor Lessons from Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown's Squeaky WheelSeptember 8, 2019
Sheilla Dingus

“I love it when a plan comes together.” This line was made famous by George Peppard’s character Hannibal Smith, in the 1980’s TV series A-Team.  Antonio Brown is probably putting the line to good use as he enjoys a day off on the first Sunday of the NFL’s 100th season.

What seemed madness to many appears to have been a well-orchestrated plan by Brown to extract himself from an increasingly untenable spot in Pittsburgh and navigate to a destination where his talents might be better appreciated and labor could take a few lessons from Brown’s “madness.”  The Washington Post provides a concise recap of the events leading to Brown’s departure from the Steelers.

Last year was a tumultuous one in Pittsburgh, with star running back Le’Veon Bell missing the entire season due to a holdout, the Steelers missing the playoffs and a sense of frustration among the team and its fans. Brown was at the center of it. There were several unexcused absences, a spat with longtime Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger over a Week 12 interception and a knee injury.

 Everything came to a head in Week 17, when Brown missed a must-win game against the Browns. Brown was said to have been out because of his knee, but it was later reported that an ugly practice altercation with Roethlisberger was the root cause. Brown left the practice because of it, and reportedly had no contact with the team after that point. He showed up at the game expecting to play, but didn’t make it to the field and left the stadium at halftime.

 This was the final blow to the relationship between Brown and the Steelers. The team shopped him around the league once the offseason began. In February, Brown tweeted that it was “time to move on.”

Brown did, in fact, move on.  In the midst of all this, however, a For the Win article, captures, the mood and belief of most in media, “Whatever the case may be, the Steelers are going to have to hash things out in the offseason, because Brown isn’t going anywhere and neither are Tomlin and Big Ben.”

At the time, many in media viewed Brown’s behavior as erratic and unprofessional, but what’s a man supposed to do in a league where the owners hold almost all the face cards?  Somehow the league has indoctrinated much of media, fans, and even a large number of players that they are to sacrifice their bodies, potentially their brains, and their own sense of autonomy for the “team.”  Instead of showcasing its talent and marketing it in a manner similar to the NBA, the NFL opts to market the shield, promoting team rivalries and geographic ties to deflect attention and fan loyalty from individual players.


Since the adoption of the NBA’s official logo in 1969  featuring Jerry West even in all the unofficial iterations, players have been at the heart, whereas, the NFL has proven time and again it has no heart for players and would prefer that fans didn’t either.  Their marketing has been effective, with fans irrationally siding with billionaire owners against millionaire (if that) players in nearly every dispute.

Many NFL players have taken note of this and advantages achieved by their NBA, NHL, and MLB counterparts as players in the NFL have lagged sorely behind.  A big part of this is the NFL’s large roster sizes coupled with the fact that there are three classes of players in the football realm: rank and file who often play at league minimums and are lucky to survive the three years necessary to vest, solid veteran players who are in demand, but largely viewed as disposable, and the few who have ascended to stardom.  Not everyone has been fortunate enough to find leverage against the behemoth league but some of those who have found it are starting to bet on themselves.

In the past, most players including the stars played the game both on and off the field choosing to remain relatively low-profile figures who touted the company line, avoided politics or anything deemed controversial, and endured the threat of the dreaded franchise tag that would kill their free agency prospects, while at the same time, accepting non-guaranteed contracts like their less famous counterparts, knowing full well that their value and job security rested on their most recent play, despite all the value they may have brought to their teams in the past.

As a result, more and more star players like Antonio Brown have started taking matters into their own hands and using what leverage they might find to the astonishment and often dismay of the establishment.  (Note: I’m not picking on Andrew Brandt, whom I have great respect for, by featuring his tweets. I’ve chosen Brandt’s tweets because he has experience as a league executive and understands the business of football better than most anyone else in media.)

January 1:

February 19:

March 10:

antonio brown

Antonio Brown waves, bye-bye to the Steelers

Shortly after the Steelers agreed to take the hit and trade Brown rumors surfaced of a trade to the Buffalo Bills—a destination Brown wasn’t wild about so he used social media to call the trade rumor “fake news” and the next day, the deal fell through.  Two days later Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders for third and fifth-round draft picks.

During the offseason controversy began to swirl around Antonio Brown again after he posted pictures of his severely blistered feet to his Instagram account on August 4 to explain why he’d been missing from practice.

As time for the regular season quickly approached Brown, filed a grievance and threatened retirement if he was forced to give up the helmet he’s worn for his entire career because of the league’s new helmet safety rules.  As social media responded as it always does, one camp expressed anger calling Brown a petulant child while a large contingent expressed concerns for his mental health to which Brown responded by posting a photo of himself and his son, with a caption, “Pollitoooo Wolves don’t loose sleep over the opinions of sheep.”


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”Pollitoooo Wolves don’t loose sleep over the opinions of sheep “

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On August 13, having lost the helmet grievance Brown tweeted:

He found the helmet he was looking for but the NFL immediately had it tested and disqualified, and Brown filed another grievance and upon being denied the Schutt helmet tweeted:

He turned lemons to lemonade in short order, however.

It appeared things were all set for Brown in Oakland when yet another controversy erupted as the Raiders announced that Brown would be fined for missed practice time.  Brown posted the letter from the GM to social media,   who then also decided to void Brown’s guarantees.

Finally Brown posted on Instagram, audio of a conversation with Coach Gruden captioned, “With all these false narratives antagonizing me, it’s time for me to control my own narrative. Show the world I’m not the bad guy. Show the world you can free yourself from the lies and become your own person. I am not just AB the football player, I am Antonio Brown, the person, who paved a way for himself to be in charge of his own life. Watch for yourself…Free me!”

“This is my life,” he said, “ain’t no more games.” Brown asked to be released from the Raiders.

On Saturday morning, to the astonishment of many, the Raiders released him.

As it does, the internet erupted with opinions regarding his state of mental health and debating whether any team would sign him when his free agency began at 4:01 pm.

It didn’t take long for the question to be answered.


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Shortly after Brown became eligible to join another team he was hastily picked up by the New England Patriots and the experts seem to be in awe.

September 8:

This September 7, tweet from Brandt tells you all you need to know when trying to make sense of Antonio Brown’s decision making.

Brown was fully aware there are few guarantees in the NFL and even fewer ways for a player to position himself.  While teams have the ability to cut or trade a player at any time, unlike in traditional employment situations, NFL players can’t start filling out job applications and accept a position with the employer of their choice.  Instead, a player can be shipped anywhere to any team at any time, and for any reason, as we saw in what appeared to be a retaliatory trade when the Dolphins shipped Kenny Stills to the Texans shortly after he criticized team owner Stephen Ross for his hypocrisy in his RISE initiative for social justice while concurrently holding a $100,000 a plate fundraiser for Donald Trump.

Still, as Brandt’s tweets indicated, money usually talks.  It seemed illogical for the Steelers to take such a heavy cap hit in permitting Antonio Brown to walk and it seemed unlikely a player would risk a $30 million contract.  It takes a certain degree of boldness to refrain from the instinct to take the closest thing to a sure bet.

A recently completed study that spanned 40-years following its subjects from early childhood through midlife in order to track and identify traits with the highest predictors of success, found defiance to be at the top of the list.

One surprising finding was that rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority was the best noncognitive predictor of higher income after accounting for the influence of IQ, parental SES, and educational attainment.

The researchers postulated that those who were found to break the rules and defy authority were more likely be better negotiators, were more likely to stand up for themselves, and were more likely to place their goals above interpersonal relationships.  In other words, there’s truth to the adage, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

Aware that the system is stacked against them, players have used creative and what some view as extreme methods to assert themselves. Last year LeVeon Bell sat out a season to force a trade because he refused to sign a franchise tag that would have prevented his entry to free agency. During this year’s offseason Jadeveon Clowney also refused to sign the franchise tag, and as Jerry Brewer wrote for the Washington Post, “He stared down the Texans. They had to trade him to a team of his choosing or else the impasse would persist. Houston blinked finally and dealt him to Seattle for lackluster assets. Now Clowney gets to play for a team he trusts will showcase the best of him, increasing the likelihood of a lucrative multiyear contract offer from someone after the season.”  Likewise, Ezekiel Elliott stared down the ultimate dealmaker Jerry Jones for a $90 million, 6-year contract.  Now Jones must deal with the demands of his exceedingly talented but highly underpaid quarterback, Dak Prescott who seeks a salary more in line with his value.  Jones will eventually have to make concessions or risk losing his proven franchise quarterback.

Perhaps no other player faced the odds Antonio Brown did and played the chess game quite as well.

Initially, as Brown’s saga began to escalate, I’ll have to admit that I considered the possibility of a mental health issue, because of the prevalence in the retired NFL population, but Brown’s messages don’t reflect the tone of a disturbed man, but rather a determined one.  Brown wasn’t charged with domestic violence or child abuse.  He didn’t get a DUI.  He wasn’t arrested on a drug or gun charge.  All indications point to a conclusion that Brown is a stable family man determined to plot his own course and pave the way for his children.


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Got to always remember it’s bigger than just me ! #FamilyFirst #CoreyPane

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This needlework picture has traveled with me through multiple moves and has hung in my home for most of my adult life.

different drummer

Brown’s words resonated with me because I’ve usually marched to my own drummer often to the bewilderment of friends and family.  I got used to people telling me I couldn’t do this or that and finally to coin a Belichick phrase, learned to “ignore the noise,” and then just go out and do whatever it was that people told me I couldn’t do.  Sure, I failed a few times, but more often than not, I didn’t, and I’ll have to admit that every successful venture of my own life was accomplished because I dared to challenge the status quo.

I saw this in Brown’s actions with the Steelers.  Waivered momentarily with the first helmet grievance and then dismissed the doubts.  Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I understand the dangers of playing football to one’s brain.  Ordinarily, I’d advocate taking the safer approach, but Brown knows that he’s been playing football for too many years for a helmet change to make much if any difference regarding his future brain health.  This wasn’t about a choice not to protect his brain, but to establish his autonomy.

Often people are so focused on money that they fail to look at anything else.  Remember the astonishment when Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck retired in their prime?  Most onlookers couldn’t conceive of a sane person walking away from a lucrative career, or in Brown’s case, contract.

But—what most of those onlookers fail to understand is that money doesn’t buy happiness.  Envy tends to impede reason.  Money buys lots of fun toys that diminish in value very quickly.  Money doesn’t buy self-esteem unless you have no self-esteem independent of it.

Increasingly, today’s NFL players are becoming woke.  Not only to the social justice issues that Colin Kaepernick protested resulting in the loss of his career but the entire ownership structure of the NFL and the control a small number of white billionaires seek to exert over their largely African American workforce.  In that vein, Brown’s tweet just after being released by the Raiders makes perfect sense.

Today Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported that Antonio Brown had enlisted the assistance of social media experts in placing himself where he wanted to be, solidifying my hypothesis of a well-orchestrated plan and not the insanity his actions represented to seasoned league executives on down to the fans.

Lessons for Labor

Know your worth:  Brown knows his skill set and production.  Not everyone could have pulled off what Brown did, but if you’re at or near the top of your field, don’t be afraid to assert your value.

Dont’ let skeptics deter you:  If you’ve assessed your situation and your value to your employer or your field, don’t let naysayers deter you.  Don’t let those who lack the confidence to act boldly deter you from doing so.

Expect Criticism: You’ll have your critics but just ignore the noise. It’s your life, not theirs.

If you’re not happy where you’re at, move on:  Many people spend their lives doing work or remaining in workplaces where they’re miserable and wind up bitter and resentful of others who appear to have it better. Don’t let fear of the unknown make a prisoner of you.

Use social media wisely: It’s never smart to tweet or post when you’re angry.  Think about what you want to accomplish, who you need to reach, and structure your messages accordingly.

In short, not everyone has the power Antonio Brown has because of his accomplishments in his chosen profession but labor is valuable, no matter where you’re sitting.  Companies can’t produce their products or offer their services without the labor to accomplish the task.  Unfortunately, most employers hope their workforce doesn’t figure this out.  Be good at what you do and maximize your value, but realize that no matter how good you are, employers aren’t likely to recognize your worth without prompting. They’re never going to hand you the moon on a silver platter.  If you want something more than you have, you have to be willing to fight for it.  If you’re not, at least refrain from slamming those who do secure victories.  Every time labor wins over management, it’s precedential and a gateway for those who choose to enter it.

Well played, Mr. Brown, well played.

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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.

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