Antonio Brown- Fake Covid-19 Vaccination Card Allegations and Possible Consequences

Brown Accused of Submitting Fake Vaccination Card

On November 18th, The Tampa Bay Times published a report that Antonio Brown had allegedly submitted a fake Covid-19 vaccination card to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brown’s accuser is his former chef and personal assistant, Steven Ruiz.

The accusations came to light after Ruiz released text messages between himself and Brown’s girlfriend, Cydney Moreau, in which Moreau explicitly asks Ruiz if he can obtain a fake Johnson and Johnson vaccination card for Brown in exchange for $500.  The text messages were released because Ruiz claims that Brown owes him approximately $10,000 which Brown has refused to pay.

Texts between Ruiz and Moreau

Ruiz claims that he did not procure a fake vaccination card for Brown, however, Brown was able to obtain one from a current Buccaneers teammate.  Ruiz has refused to name the teammate that allegedly supplied Brown with the card, however, he claims to have seen the teammate in question come to Brown’s home multiple times in connection with supplying Brown and his girlfriend with fake vaccination cards.

Both the NFL and the Buccaneers have acknowledged the accusations.  The NFL is reportedly investigating the matter, while Buccaneers Head Coach, Bruce Arians,claims this is a non-issue as the team did their due diligence in vetting Brown’s, and all of the Bucs’ players, vaccine cards when they were submitted.

If the NFL investigation reveals that Brown did in fact submit a fake vaccine card in order to skirt NFL Covid policies, he will not be the first high profile athlete to have been caught doing so.  Earlier this month, I published an article covering the NHL’s investigation and eventual 21-game suspension of Evander Kane for submitting a fake vaccination card to his team.

The NHL suspended Kane under its authority set forth in the Covid-19 protocols.  According to reports on Brown, if the investigation reveals that he did submit a fake vaccination card, he could be suspended under the League’s Personal Conduct Policy.  Interestingly, however, reports on Brown have referenced that this incident could also lead to a federal criminal charge as well.

Below I will explore the potential legal and NFL-specific consequences Brown could face if these allegations prove to be true.

A Federal Criminal Offense

According to the FBI’s website, procuring a fake Covid-19 vaccination card amounts to an unauthorized use of a government agency’s seal and is a violation of federal law. The agency seals referred to include the seals for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, the FBI has stated that using a government agency seal without permission could result in a fine and or up to five years in prison.

There is precedent for felony charges related to the distribution and use of fake Covid vaccination cards.  A recent case in New York led to a 24-year-old man being arrested and facing felony charges for submitting a fake vaccine card to his employer.  Further, the Department of Justice charged, via criminal complaint, two individuals in Michigan for distributing fake vaccination cards.  The two individuals were marketing the fake vaccination cards via their social media accounts and selling them for around $200 each.

What is most interesting, however, is that throughout the Evander Kane investigation and subsequent suspension, there was never any mention of Kane facing these same criminal charges. As the NHL suspended him after determining that Kane did in fact submit a fake vaccination card to his employer, it begs the question of why he hasn’t faced criminal charges (or if he will in the future).

Given the fact that precedent exists for federal criminal complaints being levied against users and distributors of fake vaccine cards, it will be interesting to see how this NFL investigation plays out.  It will be intriguing to see if Brown would face criminal charges for his involvement, and further, if any charges would be brought against the teammate that allegedly supplied Brown with the card.

NFL’s Process for Submitting Proof of Vaccination

As part of the NFL Covid policy, players are required to submit vaccination documentation to their respective team.  From there, the team is responsible for vetting and documenting a player’s vaccination status.

According to Ruiz, Alex Guerrero (co-founder of TB12 with Tom Brady) visited Brown at his home and took a photo of Brown’s allegedly fake vaccination card.  He then sent it to the team’s head athletic trainer which eventually made its way to the team’s infection control officer.  This process was in-line with NFL and team Covid policies.  It is important to note that Ruiz did not claim that Guerrero or any other team official believed the card was fake.

Again, Head Coach Bruce Arians was adamant that the team had done its due diligence with Brown’s vaccination status, along with every other player, and had no reason to doubt the card’s authenticity. Further, The Buccaneers released a statement declaring that “all vaccination cards were reviewed by Buccaneers personnel and no irregularities were observed.” Prior to the season, Arians informed the media that the team was 100% vaccinated.

Curiously, however, Brown is one of only a few Buccaneers players to test positive for Covid this season.  He sat out the Week 3 contest against the Rams due to the positive test. Brown sat out the same 10-day waiting period that is required for unvaccinated players.

Consequences Under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy

Per reports, and NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy, any attempt by team personnel or players to use a fake vaccine card would be reviewed under the Personal Conduct Policy and may subject the individual to discipline.

The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy was introduced in 1997 and has had major revisions in 2007, 2014, and multiple times over the past few years specifically to address domestic violence.  In general, the Personal Conduct Policy was implemented to address off-field conduct by not only players, but all NFL personnel. Its stated mission is to deter NFL personnel from any “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL by establishing clear standards of behavior.

The policy provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of conduct that would result in a player being in violation thereof.  Submitting a fake vaccine card could potentially fall under two of the categories listed;   1) crimes of dishonesty, which includes fraud, and 2) conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel. (Again, the list is not exhaustive and is meant to provide examples of detrimental conduct.)

The policy also provides a roadmap for the investigation and disciplinary process.  If the NFL knows of or is alerted to a possible violation of the Policy, then the NFL will launch its own investigation spearheaded by the NFL’s Special Counsel for Investigations and Conduct, Lisa Friel, who was recently featured in an article in this space.  If the incident is also being investigated by law enforcement, then the NFL will purportedly avoid any interference with the ongoing investigation and could wait until the law enforcement investigation is completed to conclude its own investigation. 

Although it is established that producing a fake vaccine card could potentially result in federal criminal charges, there is no law enforcement investigation being conducted currently.  Thus, the NFL is likely looking into these accusations now via their Special Counsel.

During the investigation, the NFL has the power to place the player on paid administrative leave (the Commissioner’s Exempt List) if the NFL investigation finds sufficient credible evidence that a violation of the Policy has occurred.  If an investigation reveals that the player engaged in conduct that violates the Policy, then the NFL will impose penalties. 

Depending on the nature of the violation and the person’s record, discipline may be a fine, suspension, community service, or a combination of the three. From there, the player would have the ability to appeal the penalty and the appeal would be reviewed by a panel of 3 independent experts. That panel can make recommendations to the Commissioner, however, it is ultimately the Commissioner who has the final say on the appeal.

Importantly here, the Policy is very explicit in stating that additional violations (i.e. repeat offenders) can result in banishment from the NFL.  That is relevant for Brown because he has already been suspended under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.  The NFL suspended Brown without pay for the first 8 games of 2020 due to multiple violations of the Policy, including sexual assault allegations, unpaid debt disputes (like the one with Ruiz here), and violent public outbursts towards others.

Accordingly, the NFL’s Special Counsel is likely currently undertaking an investigation into the claim that Antonio Brown submitted a fake Covid-19 vaccination card to the Buccaneers.  If at any time during the investigation the Special Counsel finds sufficient credible evidence that Brown used a fake card, then Brown may be put on the Commissioner’s Exempt List prior to the conclusion of the investigation.  If the investigation determines that Brown submitted a fake vaccine card and the Commissioner denies a subsequent appeal, Brown could be looking at serious punishment.  

The Policy clearly states that banishment from the League is an option for multiple offenders.  As Covid restrictions and health and safety protocols are a major concern for the NFL right now, and with Brown’s tumultuous past and prior suspensions, it is feasible to envision the Commissioner handing down an extreme punishment to make an example.

Brown has adamantly denied these allegations through his attorney, who even went so far as to say that Brown would be willing to get the Covid booster shot (meant for those who are already vaccinated) live on television. Brown is a pivotal piece for the Buccaneers’ hope of back-to-back Super Bowl championships. Given Brown’s history, the status of the team amongst the League’s elite, and the ripple effects a fake Covid card submission could have League-wide, this investigation could have major implications moving forward.

UPDATE: Antonio Brown Suspended 3 Games by the NFL

On December 2nd, 2021, the NFL suspended Antonio Brown, along with Mike Edwards and John Franklin, for Covid violations related to misrepresenting their vaccination status. All three players decided to accept the suspension and forego a possible appeal.

This is certainly an interesting punishment to analyze. As stated above, the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy contains very broad language related to possible penalties. The Policy states that discipline for a violation thereof will be based on the ‘nature of the violation and the person’s record.’

Here, we have an investigation that concluded Antonio Brown used a fake Covid vaccine card to misrepresent his vaccination status. Given the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives across the globe and the very notion that the NFL-NFLPA instituted a strict Covid policy, one would figure that the ‘nature of the violation’ in this instance would be seen as severe. Further, Antonio Brown is a repeat offender and has already been suspended for 8 games under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Again, this is a fact that one would believe to be determinative for the ‘person’s record’ element of punishment under the Policy. However, the three game suspension handed down to Brown seems a bit light given the circumstances.

There are reports that the NFL initially considered a suspension of 6-8 games for Brown before settling on the 3-game suspension. NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport reported that the NFL investigation turned up inconsistencies with the facility where Brown purported to have received his vaccine. Presented with the facts, Brown admitted his wrongdoing and accepted his punishment. Additionally, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that it was the NFLPA that negotiated the League down from their original stance on a 6-8 game suspension. Perhaps the admission and negotiation with the NFLPA led the NFL to be more lenient with the punishment.

Interestingly, NBC’s Mike Florio reported that the NFLPA specifically pushed to avoid using the term ‘fake vaccine card’ and instead wanted to use ‘misrepresented vaccine status.’ This is reportedly due to the fact that producing a fake vaccine card carries with it the potential of federal criminal penalties, as discussed above.

Ripple Effects of the Suspension

As this is the first Covid-related suspension in the NFL, there are sure to be some interesting effects felt League-wide. It is important to remember that although there have been Covid-related controversies this year in the NFL, most notably Aaron Rodgers claiming an alternative immunization and subsequently not following Covid protocols, none have resulted in game suspensions. As they say, on the field the NFL is a copycat league, and now it appears that NFL teams are picking up cues from this Antonio Brown mishap with the Buccaneers to ensure they are not the next team caught in a fake Covid card controversy.

In the wake of the suspension, the NFL is communicating with teams to inquire whether or not players received their vaccination at the team’s training facility or at an offsite location. The NFL is apparently honing in on players who received vaccination at offsite locations, although there are no further open investigations at this time. Teams are also pushing their players to receive booster shots in an effort to cure any potential risk associated with players in the ranks who may have misrepresented their vaccination status.

As for Brown, the 3-game suspension may not be the final punishment he faces. It has been reported from multiple sources that the Buccaneers are seriously considering cutting the former All-Pro for his latest run-in with NFL disciplinary actions. It has to be particularly painful for the Bucs as the team and Head Coach Bruce Arians came out adamantly against the initial report and proudly boasted of the team’s 100% vaccination rate.

It is highly unlikely that Brown, Edwards, and Franklin were the only NFL players to produce fake Covid vaccination cards to their teams. Now that the precedent is set, we can expect teams to seriously vet their personnel’s vaccination cards and we can expect the NFL to investigate any accusations or irregularities that they come across. As we get this late into the season a 3-game suspension for a key player could have serious implications for teams’ playoff hopes. Of course, the next big development to keep an eye on will be if this latest suspension eventually leads to the end of Antonio Brown’s tumultuous NFL career.

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