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Locker room talk: Antonio Brown’s locker room betrayal will hurt his team Sunday

How the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver’s actions are affecting the perception of his coach

“The Steelers are coming. The Steelers are coming.’’

Like Paul Revere riding through Concord, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown announced to the world earlier this week that the Steelers are on their way.

This is not how Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to begin a week of preparation for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.

After an emotional victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 15, Tomlin fired up his team by telling them they were already behind in their preparation for New England.

New England had defeated the Houston Texans the day before, while the Steelers game had been moved from that Sunday afternoon to Sunday evening.

“We just spotted these a–h—- a day and a half,” Tomlin was heard saying on Facebook Live. “We’re going to touch down at 4 o’clock in the f—ing morning. So be it.”

Tomlin had planted the familiar “us-against-the-world underdog mentality,” and he wanted his team to seethe.

Little did the Steelers head coach know that Brown, Pittsburgh’s tone-deaf star receiver, was standing in the back of the locker room, recording the pep talk via a Facebook Live broadcast.

Add Tomlin and the Steelers to the list of celebrities and others whose comments inside the hallowed walls of a private space were made public.

Tomlin was embarrassed. Too bad for him. The public was treated to a glimpse of the raw truth. Good for us.

During the presidential election campaign, Donald Trump was exposed after an 11-year-old video was released showing the now-president bragging that male stars and celebrities don’t need permission to kiss and grope women. He passed off his crude, misogynist comments as locker room talk.

From Trump to Tomlin, the notion of locker room sanctity raises a number of moral and ethical issues.

Which is worse: offensive comments being recorded and released, or the comments being made in the first place?

Do we punish the messenger, in this case Brown, or examine the distance between what we say in our private locker room spaces and what we say in public?

Earlier this week, Tomlin explained that the locker room was a sacred space.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown catches a first down pass in front of Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston to keep the drive alive with less than two minutes remaining in the game during the AFC Divisional Playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown catches a first down pass in front of Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston to keep the drive alive with less than two minutes remaining in the game during the AFC Divisional Playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

“That’s why we go to great lengths to preserve certain moments and certain interactions between us,” he said. But he also suggested that the private space allows its occupants to camouflage the truth and preserve an image.

“We are very sensitive to the opportunity that we have as role models,” Tomlin said, “so I apologize for the content of the video from that perspective. As a parent, as a member of the community, I take that very seriously. I sincerely issue an apology in that regard.”

As for Brown, his continued presence with the Steelers speaks to the conundrum of coaches held hostage by talent. The more talent, the more tolerance, although Tomlin warned Brown this week that he was approaching a point of diminishing returns.

“He’s got to grow from this, he has to,” Tomlin told reporters. Tomlin acknowledged Brown’s work ethic, but said that Brown’s antics compromise his effectiveness.

Brown has been warned about and penalized for excessive celebration and also for violations of the NFL’s uniform code.

“You wear on your teammates when they routinely have to answer questions about things that aren’t preparation- or football-related,” Tomlin said, adding that players who become headaches frequently become journeymen.

“I think that’s why oftentimes you see great players move around from team to team. And I definitely don’t want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn’t want that to be his story.”

Should we castigate Brown, or should we thank him for giving us a sliver of the raw truth? Is the crime being exposed, or is the crime misspeaking in the first place?

In the case of Brown vs. Tomlin, I suggest that the heavier weight falls on the head coach.

In a 17-minute video clip, we witnessed the tensions between an upstanding Christian man, a caring father with deep family values and a head coach engaged in a barbaric sport who is paid millions to motivate professional athletes.

“The language in the video is regrettable, by me and by others,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin apologized “as a parent and member of the community” for the content of the video. Brown issued the obligatory apology earlier this week, but Tomlin had to also apologize for the vulgarity exposed by the Facebook Live video.

Tomlin was put in a compromising position because the clip showed a respected man whose actions inside the privacy of his locker room were at odds with his public image. It could have been worse.

The reality is that many of us engage in locker room talk. I define the locker room as a private space, a preserve free from the prying eyes and ears of outsiders. The locker room is any designated “safe space” where people and groups speak candidly, speak the raw truth, confident that their comments stay within the walls of their respective sanctuaries: the kitchen, the dining room, the den.

Imagine our consternation if one of our children live-streams a dinner table conversation or a spouse live-streams bedroom talk.

We have witnessed numerous violations of locker room spaces when what supposedly was private goes viral.

Last March, then-Los Angeles Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell secretly recorded teammate Nick Young as Young — at Russell’s prodding — spoke about being with women other than his fiancée Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper.

In 2014, Donald Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was done in by his girlfriend, who secretly recorded conversations and then released them.

There was a time when I felt that the social media climate, which thrives on likes and clicks, anesthetizes our moral compasses, makes us all morally tone-deaf.

In fact, I believe that we are experiencing a refreshing shrinking of the boundaries between public and private behavior, one that exhorts us to be who we are, to not hide in the dark recess of our locker rooms.

If you feel one way in private, express it publicly. Own it. The truth can be a powerful, knockout force.

The story of Sunday’s game between Pittsburgh and New England is the story of a betrayal of trust and whether that betrayal will have an impact on the outcome. Tomlin said there will be no ill effect, though the broadcast might have more of an impact than Tomlin lets on.

While Brown violated the sanctity of the locker room, Tomlin, in making an off-handed postgame comment to fire up his team, disrespected an organization.

After Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City, Tomlin encouraged his team to keep a low profile. Yes, that was a steep mountain to climb, but the Steelers were up to the task. “We’ll be ready for their a–,” Tomlin vowed, “but you ain’t got to tell them we’re coming.”

Too late.

Thanks to Brown, New England knows: “The Steelers are coming. The Steelers are coming.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him @ william.rhoden@espn.com