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Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown has been suspended three games for violating the NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols, the league announced Thursday.
The league and the players’ union found that Brown was among three players who misrepresented their vaccination status. A former personal chef from Brown’s said earlier this month that the broad recipient had received a fake COVID-19 vaccination card over the summer.
Also suspended for three games were Buccaneer’s backup safety Mike Edwards and free-agent wide receiver John Franklin III, who Tampa Bay relinquished in August. All three players accepted their discipline and will not appeal, according to the NFL.
Browns and Edwards’ suspensions are unpaid. Both will be eligible to return to the Buccaneers lineup for the team’s game on December 26 against the Carolina Panthers. The NFL and NFLPA negotiated the length of the suspension prior to Thursday’s announcement, sources told ESPN’s Dan Graziano.
All three players have now been vaccinated and admitted offenses against the league in the investigation process, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
“The NFL-NFLPA jointly reinforces their commitment and further emphasizes the importance of strict adherence to the protocols to protect the welfare of all affiliated with the NFL,” the league and the Players’ Association said in a statement.
The league’s investigation showed that Brown brought a fake vaccination card with him to training camp, but shortly after he arrived, someone told him they could get him in trouble, so he made the decision to be vaccinated, sources told Graziano.
Brown’s attorney, Sean Burstyn, said in a statement that Brown “continues to support the vaccine for any person for whom it is appropriate.”
“The NFL took his determination, and instead of going through the lengthy and distracting process of challenging the outcome, Mr. Brown completed this immediately and he will get the most out of this time by treating his ankle injury,” Burstyn said. “Mr. Brown will be motivated, well rested and in the best shape of his life when he returns in week 16.”
Brown was not expected to play in the next two games due to an ankle and heel injury that has kept him out since Week 7, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Wednesday.
Chef Steven Ruiz said earlier this month that Brown had gotten his girlfriend, model Cydney Moreau, to contact him over the summer to get a fake vaccination card. After Ruiz was unable to acquire a fake card for Brown, he said that a few weeks later the wide receiver showed him the ones he had for himself and Moreau, which Brown said he had bought.
Ruiz told ESPN that Brown had received his fake vaccine card from a Buccaneers teammate. Ruiz declined to name the other player.
Burstyn had denied that Brown was given a fake vaccine card.
One day after Ruiz’s first claim, Buccaneer’s coach Bruce Arians said the team did its “due diligence” examining the player’s vaccine card, adding: “I really do not think it’s a story.”
“We appreciate the league’s timely handling of this matter and recognize the importance of the health and safety protocols that have been established. We will continue to implement all of the league’s COVID-19 protocols,” Buccaneers said in a statement Thursday.
80% of the NFL’s vaccinated players were vaccinated at team facilities, sources told Graziano, meaning there is no doubt about the authenticity of their vaccination card. The NFL also found that there has been no difference between the positivity rate among players vaccinated at team facilities and those vaccinated elsewhere, sources said, which is one reason the league does not fear widespread fake vaccination card issuance .
During the 2020 season, the Buccaneers’ mantra was “beat the virus.” In September, the Arians reported that all players and staff had received the COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the second NFL team to do so.
While Brown did not publicly discuss his vaccination status, Edwards wore a mask when he met with reporters at the beginning of training camp, which is required for players who are unvaccinated. Asked about his vaccination status, Edwards said at the time: “I do not really want to talk about vaccinations. That’s what it is. I do not really want to get into it.”
Asked if he would change his mind, Edwards said, “I do not know. We’ll see.” After that, Edwards did not wear a mask when talking to reporters.
Edwards, who has lined up in safety and nickelback, forced a fumble in last week’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts and leads the team with three interceptions. He was named NFC Defender of the Week in Week 2 after scoring two pick-sixs against the Atlanta Falcons.
ESPN’s Jenna Laine contributed to this report.