Antonio Brown is an Instagram All-Pro. But is that the full picture?
The best wide receiver in the NFL has a lot to say — but only on social media
Antonio Brown is a man of few words and many images, expressing himself through visuals of helicopter arrivals, outlandish touchdown celebrations, ferocious workouts, kilogram-weight jewelry, gobs of Gucci and a sunbeam smile strong enough to melt your phone.
And Instagram. He’s always on Instagram. Much like Brown is the best wide receiver in the NFL, @ab is All-Pro on the ’Gram. This summer, as the Pittsburgh Steelers star prepared for a Super Bowl-or-bust season and crisscrossed the country filming commercials, @ab blitzed his 2.6 million followers with 3.6 posts per day, more than any active NFL, NBA or MLB player. He billed these updates as an “unfiltered” and “real” view into his life, placing him at the forefront of the growing number of athletes and celebrities trying to control their personal narratives through social media.
Instagram is Brown’s primary communication tool. When interviewed, Brown rarely speaks at length. Even @ab’s Instagram captions are usually just a few words or emojis. Nobody gets on the ‘Gram to read. They go to look. To watch. To be entertained, transported, titillated or inspired.
This summer, we saw @ab in the gym, chiseling his spectacular physique. In his Miami mansion, playing with his three youngest kids. Running routes on the field and the beach. Flying on private jets. Selling Nikes, Pizza Hut and Madden. Surrounded by adoring fans at training camp. Hashtagging #CallGod, with telephone fingers held up to his face. His 19.5 million likes and comments since May trailed only LeBron James and Odell Beckham Jr. On his “Stories” (Instagram images that disappear in 24 hours) we saw @ab’s meals, haircuts, colognes, socks and adorable scenes of his kids @auto, @alikingbrown and baby @apollob.
Really doe: How real is what @ab serves up? Here’s what we didn’t see:
The quadriceps injury that kept Brown out of training camp drills and preseason games. Calling a respected white journalist a racist after the writer tweeted that Brown was limping. The deleted Instagram post in which Brown trashed the mother of his three youngest kids.
Pittsburgh is deep into win-now mode. The Steelers, who open their season Sept. 9 against the Browns, haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 2011, when they lost 31-25 to Green Bay. They have the best offensive trio in the league, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 36 and nobody knows when, or if, running back Le’Veon Bell will suit up again in Pittsburgh. Brown is the most reliable of the three on the field, with more than 100 receptions in each of the past five seasons, the longest such streak. At age 30, Brown’s numbers match up with the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, at the same stage of Rice’s career.
Yet the Steelers are in danger of being eclipsed by their AFC rival, the Patriots, as the greatest franchise in NFL history. As New England marched to a fourth and fifth championship during the past three seasons, Pittsburgh gained a reputation for being undisciplined. Brown helped fuel that perception with behavior such as throwing a water cooler, not staying in the team dorms during training camp and recording an infamous Facebook Live locker room video. (More on that later.)
According to Brown’s Instagram, he’s now fully charged to power Pittsburgh to a seventh Lombardi trophy.
Unless those ripples in his Matrix get in the way.
It’s a sweaty day in late May at Pittsburgh’s practice facility on the banks of the Monongahela River, the second day of voluntary organized team workouts, or OTAs. As Brown came off the field I introduced myself and asked for an interview. He acknowledged me in the distant manner of many star athletes, like a racehorse acknowledging a fly, and breezed past without answering. The next day, Brown was not on the field. He was on his Instagram Stories, sprinting up sand dunes and blasting through squats.
Brown would miss the rest of the workouts, but his teammates and coaches were confident he’d be ready for the season. Entering his ninth pro campaign, earning $17 million per year, a close second among receivers to Odell Beckham Jr.’s new deal, Brown is a certified superstar. His peers voted him the second-best player on the 2018 Top 100 list. He led the NFL last season with 109.5 yards per game, 71 first-down catches and 1,533 receiving yards — in only 14 games. In Pittsburgh’s crushing playoff loss to Jacksonville, matched up against All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Brown returned from a badly torn calf muscle to catch seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
These huge stats come in a small package: Brown is only 5 feet, 10 inches and 181 pounds. At the 2010 NFL combine, he clocked a sluggish 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash and a ho-hum vertical leap of 33½ inches.
So how did he haul in more passes than anyone else over the past five seasons? Instagram has answers.
See him catching bullets from the Jugs machine. Since 2015, Brown has dropped only seven of 512 passes thrown his way. Watch him eat chef-prepared lean meats, veggies and whole grains. His body fat is a pantherlike 3 percent. Check him in the sand, working on his “Tony Toe Tap” footwork. Brown has an entire Nutcracker repertoire of sideline ballets, plus the best separation moves in the game.
This is just a fraction of the work Brown puts in.
“I would take that kid through some s—. It broke other guys down. He’ll fight through it,” said trainer Idi “Bo” Smith, who like Brown hails from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, a hard-knock ’hood with a bottomless well of athletic talent.
Smith played receiver in the Arena Football League and has trained dozens of football stars. He started working with Brown as a youngster, and he trained and lived with Brown for entire NFL seasons until they parted ways a year ago. Smith says he molded Brown into an improved version of Smith’s best friend and client Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, another Liberty City product.
“His work ethic is impeccable,” Smith said. “He gon’ go through it. Whatever you got for him, he gon’ go through it.”
In June, Brown arrived at the mandatory Steelers minicamp unhappy about media questions over his absence from OTAs. He also claimed that something he said to reporters at the beginning of OTAs about Bell’s contract holdout — “You can’t make anything better without showing up. … He wants to be here not just for this year, but years to come, come out here and show up.” — was not actually telling Bell to show up.
Standing in front of his locker, surrounded by reporters, Brown said he felt under constant pressure.
“You guys write about me every day. My mom and my kids see it. So we have to deal with these type of things. I started to think to myself, am I really free?” Brown said.
Instagram, by contrast, is specifically constructed to be a happy place, “super positive and optimistic,” without the combat and lynch mobs plaguing other social media platforms. African-Americans are 13 percent of the country’s population but are overrepresented on Instagram and use it at higher rates than whites or Hispanics — a historically silenced people leading a new-millennium conversation. This is where Brown feels free, where he can take a knee or a stand or a shot at his coaches. Where tens of thousands of fans 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 his every post, and haters get 🤚🏽🤚🏽🤚🏽with a tap of the block button.
Compared with Instagram, the world of the NFL can feel confining.
“I can’t really express myself in this game,” Brown said. “I can’t really tell you how I feel.”
Brown has lived through much pain, and refuses to let it go. It both fuels and explains him.
He grew up playing in the Gwen Cherry Park youth leagues of Liberty City, where one coach, Tyrone Hilton, remembers his playing style as shifty and his demeanor as playful: “He always, always had that smile.” But his father, Arena Football League legend Eddie Brown, left when Antonio was a child. Antonio had a difficult relationship with his stepfather and was kicked out of his home at 16. He finished high school jumping from family to family, feeling angry and abandoned. Bad grades derailed Brown’s recruitment by Florida State. He attended a postgrad prep school for a year, lost his scholarship at Florida International University because of an altercation soon after arriving on campus, then ended up at Central Michigan.
Almost all of today’s superstar athletes have been the man since childhood: groomed, stroked and coddled because of their talent. Brown, by contrast, was just another neglected kid balling out in Liberty City, where fast is average and should-have-beens outnumber successes. “I didn’t know he’d be this good,” Hilton said. Brown had to walk on at Central Michigan, arriving on a Greyhound bus with all his possessions in one duffel bag. He entered the 2010 draft small and slow. The Steelers picked him in the sixth round, 195th overall.
No wonder Brown craves attention.
End-zone twerking was for cheerleaders until Brown popped that thang. He did a Wile E. Coyote into the goalpost on another touchdown celebration. In 2016, before the NFL loosened celebration rules, Brown’s end-zone antics were penalized three times and earned $57,733 in fines. He was chauffeured to the 2016 and 2017 training camps in Rolls-Royces, then touched down this summer in a black helicopter, which merited no fewer than eight Instagram posts and an epic Story. Brown hopped out of the chopper with his girlfriend, their three boys and a $7,400 Louis Vuitton briefcase. Completing the ensemble was his 30th birthday present to himself: a $200,000 Cuban link gold chain with a 100-carat, diamond-encrusted pendant, forged from a full kilogram of gold.
America’s blue-chip brands love Brown’s flash. He has endorsed at least a dozen companies, from Pepsi to Visa. Competed shirtless and sequined on Dancing with the Stars. Appeared in Drake’s video for the smash single “God’s Plan.” Released two videos this summer with style brand Complex: one buying sneakers at a high-end boutique, the other inside the sneaker closet in Brown’s mansion, his Jordans and Balenciagas surrounding a large statue of a golden lion.
In July, Brown embarked on a six-city, 12-day, 4,500-mile Destroy The Doubt bus tour for Nike Football, visiting high school teams from tough neighborhoods that experienced winless seasons. Brown’s IG Stories from the trip were bursting with energy, from rock-star entrances to his hype man trailing him on pass routes, phone in shaky hand.
After the tour, Brown jumped right into promoting the latest Madden video game. He’s the first player to appear on the game’s cover without a helmet, his normally inviting smile turnt up to a scream of triumph. I spoke briefly to Brown by phone the day the cover was released (the only time he agreed to talk to The Undefeated) and asked why he posts so many of his workouts.
“I want to encourage the world, encourage everyone watching to work, inspire everyone watching and be a good example,” he said. “Encourage everyone watching to never get content, you know what I mean. Inspire the world in my actions as far as working.”
The commercials have a similar motivation, he said. “Obviously I’m not only just a great athlete, a football player, I got good charisma. … I just want to keep inspiring not only on the field but off the field as well.”
“AB has a charismatic personality; his energy, attitude and focus is infectious. … His love of fashion combined with his dedication to his family allows us to leverage him as a partner who can connect with many different Nike consumers,” said Nike spokesman Josh Benedek. “AB shows his most authentic self in his social media.”
Following Brown’s personal and business relationships is like defending him in single coverage: You’re likely to pretzel yourself into a knot trying to keep up.
Eleven-year-old Antonio Jr. is the son of Shameika Brailsford, an aspiring rapper with two Nicki Minaj-type songs on Soundcloud. Ten-year-old Antanyiah, a budding track star, is the daughter of a hairstylist. Brown does not follow either of their mothers on Instagram. Autonomy, Ali, and 1-year-old Apollo are the sons of Chelsie Kyriss, Brown’s current girlfriend.
“I’ve got a lot of kids, so my sperm count is good,” Brown boasted in an interview for ESPN’s Body Issue, where he posed naked with a football over his sperm-production equipment.
In February 2017, Brown signed the massive new contract that included a $19 million signing bonus. Two months later, Kyriss, who was pregnant with Apollo, hopped on the ’Gram to vent about Brown’s new relationship with Instagram model Jena Frumes: “you do not look at someone the night you walk out and tell them you appreciate them and love them and to go turn around and do what he’s done to someone … y’all only know what social media shows y’all don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in a good or bad way,” Kyriss wrote.
Brown soon reconciled with Kyriss. Frumes tweeted her heartbreak — plus Brown’s phone number.
Last summer, Brailsford aired Brown out on her Instagram, accusing him of not paying proper child support, failing to send Antonio Jr. to private school and calling their son “that boy.” She also posted screenshots of text messages where Brown, clearly instigated, called her all sorts of names. “Make your own son b—-,” Brown texted, according to Brailsford’s posts. “I got three more boys here.”
Brown fired back by posting bank statements showing $197,000 in child support payments, plus a Story showing Kyriss holding their newborn son, Apollo, with his tiny middle finger flexed and the caption, “My son sums it up.”
Smith, the trainer, also quit in August 2017, posting an acidic resignation on Instagram. ‘Be a MAN of your WORD and own up to your WRONGS as a MAN should,” Smith wrote.
“I don’t want to say nothing bad, but he got character issues,” Smith told me recently. “You act family, always talking God, you not really on that. Stop acting. Got people think you really living that life when you acting. You putting on for social media, bruh.
“He’s an amazing football player and amazing athlete. As far as character, he fooled me.
“It’s probably some s— he went through as a kid he’s still holding onto,” Smith said.
Smith’s departure was not unique. Brown had a difficult separation with chef Nicholas Hasapoglou in 2016 — “I thought he was my friend, and that’s not the case I guess,” Hasapoglou said in a video. This spring, during a dispute over a marketing fee, Brown sent a series of profane text messages to a former business associate, who showed the messages to a reporter but asked that they not be quoted. This summer, Brown distanced himself from still another marketing company, KCB Sports, and went to STB Athletes. Brown’s representatives at STB and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The family arguments continued this year. On June 4, Brown accused Kyriss on Instagram of not taking care of the two children she had with another man before connecting with Brown. “She has two older kids … she hasn’t seen or claimed in 4 years running around and chasing me!” Brown posted.
In August, I direct-messaged Brailsford, the mother of Brown’s first child, on Instagram and asked for an interview.
“You sure you wanna talk to me? cause he nothing like he portray on the internet,” she responded. We then spoke briefly by phone. She was reluctant to publicly call out her son’s father but wanted people to “know my truth.” We made plans to meet. She texted the day of the meeting to postpone. That same day, Brown posted a back-to-school photo of Antonio Jr. — the boy’s first photo on Brown’s Instagram in five months. I never heard back from Brailsford.
I emailed Frumes, the Instagram model with 3.4 million followers of her own. Four days later, I received a direct message on Instagram. It was from @ab.
“Bro stop hitting my people up looking for stories stay in your lane.”
The @ab Instagram feed disappeared from my phone. Antonio Brown had blocked me.
There has always been a natural tension between athletes and the media. Black athletes, in particular, have often been treated unfairly by an overwhelmingly white press corps that can be ignorant of black culture and experiences. These conflicts usually play out in private.
But when you live life in social media’s hall of mirrors, everything is a spectacle.
On Aug. 7, I went to Steelers training camp to ask Brown about how he uses social media and the turmoil in his personal life. It was his first day back at camp after missing more than a week with what the team called a minor quadriceps injury. As Brown walked up the steps from the practice field and approached about 20 reporters waiting for the players, he pulled his hoodie up so it concealed his face.
“AB, you got a minute?” I said as he walked past about two yards away. He did not pause, turn his head or acknowledge the question. That afternoon, I told the Steelers’ public relations staff about @ab telling me to “stay in my lane” and asked them to talk to Brown about an interview. He angrily refused.
One week later, Ed Bouchette, who has covered the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1985 and been honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, watched Brown at practice and tweeted: “Antonio Brown limps off practice after some early individual work.” It got 141 retweets and 246 likes.
Bouchette told me that shortly after his tweet, Brown confronted him in person and said, “You a racist, you a racist.” (Bouchette is white.)
That afternoon, Brown retweeted Bouchette with the comment: “Bro seriously have some respect you making s— up clown.” It got more than 5,700 retweets and 29,000 likes. Brown and Bouchette spoke in late August and “cleared the air,” according to a Steelers spokesman.
The next day, Brown tweeted his displeasure with media coverage that mentioned he had been more than four hours late to a Madden-sponsored appearance at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The day after that, Brown tweeted, “Integrity of journalist” with a video of Denzel Washington critiquing the media.
It should be no surprise that Brown has injected himself with a social media serum, creating an alternate reality in which he is constantly lied about, doubted, disrespected and rejected. He showed us his plans on Jan. 15, 2017, after the Steelers beat the Chiefs 18-16 in Kansas City to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
That was the day Brown famously broadcast live on Facebook from the victorious locker room, causing a distraction that contributed to Pittsburgh getting stomped by New England the following week. Brown had an endorsement deal with Facebook at the time. Most of the attention afterward focused on the churchgoing Tomlin’s use of profanity and how Brown had violated the sanctity of the locker room. What Brown himself does in the 17-minute-plus broadcast got largely overlooked.
He says little. His fluorescent smile amid the jubilation is eloquent enough.
He repeats, “Call God” and “God is the greatest” 18 times. He gets more and more excited as the live viewers pile up. “We got 41K! 42K … we got 44,000 people tuned in, man.”
A reporter asks for an interview. “I can’t do nothing till I shower,” Brown says. “You’re doing something right now,” she responds, pointing into Brown’s camera.
Yes, he was. The formerly abandoned and overlooked boy was seizing the spotlight, on his terms.
“For those who didn’t believe — look at me now, ha haaa,” he crows. “For the time they locked me out the crib they didn’t let me in, haaa! You played yourself. For the time they didn’t recruit me to go to college — haaaa! You played yourself. For the people who rolled up and said I was too small — aahh, haaa.”
Brown puts his phone in his locker, still broadcasting live, and begins to take off his uniform. A few reporters gather. One asks about an interview.
“I can’t do nothing until I wash deez nuts,” Brown responds.
He looks into the camera. “They want to talk when you win, huh. ’Cause I’m up right now.” He takes off his undershirt.
“Facebook Live, I’m live. 43K.
“God is the greatest, man. God is the greatest.”
Brown pulls down his underwear, exposing his butt to the reporters. They don’t look.