The end was always going to be ugly, and needlessly sad, for Antonio Brown

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Throughout most of his life in the spotlight — the arguments, fights, lawsuits, lies, preening, suspensions and firings — Antonio Brown has wanted the world to believe he was a victim.

In what will likely be his final act on an NFL field, he may have finally convinced us.

Watching a shirtless Brown wave and smile as he strolled through the end zone in the middle of Sunday’s game against the Jets was, remarkably, even more sad than it was bizarre.

It was like the final, defiant walk of a condemned man who isn’t even aware that he just authored his own confession. And it left you with the uneasy feeling that this story had finally run out of second chances. Everything that follows will be more tragic than redemptive.

I’m not excusing Brown. As impoverished as his early life growing up in Miami may have been, he was blessed with athletic skills and plenty of people willing to help him rewrite his destiny along the way. In the end, it was his own choice to forever behave defiantly and childishly.

But the fault is not Brown’s, alone. The NFL has played a role. And the Buccaneers surely share in this debacle, even as they continue to hide from it.

By first ignoring the obvious clues that he had turned in a false vaccination card over the summer, and then acting as if he had not been warned that he had been signed under a zero-tolerance policy, the Bucs had given Brown the impression that he was bulletproof.

He could do or say whatever he wanted, and as long as Tom Brady wanted him in the huddle the team wouldn’t dare discipline him.

But the one thing he could not do is refuse to play.

At least that’s the impression head coach Bruce Arians gave after announcing Brown was no longer with the team following the 28-24 victory.

After Arians deflected several questions about Brown, 33, during his postgame news conference, he later told Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer that the receiver had declined to go back on the field after being asked at least twice. Brown has been dealing with an ankle/foot injury for the past two months.

So that’s it? Brown goes from model citizen — which is how Arians described him exactly one week ago — to a player who has to hitch a ride home from New Jersey because of a sideline spat?

Look, the Bucs had to know it would eventually end this way. Brown essentially quit on the Steelers in 2018 when he wasn’t getting enough passes thrown his way. The following year he quit on the Raiders — and walked away from $30 million in guaranteed money — after arguing with the general manager.

So instead of cutting ties with Brown after the vaccination card scandal, or at least keeping him on the sidelines while suggesting he seek professional help for his obvious problems with authority, the Bucs acted as if scamming NFL protocols was a mere annoyance.

And then they dumped him a week later.

In the end, the Bucs lost twice on the same gamble. They sacrificed a small measure of integrity by declining to follow through on their promises that Brown would have to behave, and they still ended up without his talents on the roster heading into the postseason.

Meanwhile, Brown fails to reach the end of the regular season for the third time in four years.

“You won’t hear me talk bad about A.B., at all. I obviously understand things happen, but he’s one of my closest friends,” said running back Le’Veon Bell, who played with Brown in Pittsburgh. “Overall, a good person. You know, obviously some bad decision-making at times. But he’s human, he’s not perfect.”

Perfect is not the standard we require for professional athletes. But accountability would be nice. So would good citizenship and self-awareness. Brown has failed miserably in those areas.

And yet he kept getting jobs in the NFL because he could run routes quickly and precisely and catch the football as well as anyone on the planet. Coaches were willing to overlook all of Brown’s faults as long as his production exceeded his level of aggravation.

So was Sunday’s disgrace the NFL’s fault for not doing more to help a player who had issues? Was it solely Brown’s fault for his continued misbehavior? Was it the fault of a media machine that convinces athletes they are immune to trouble from the time they are prep stars? Was it the fault of NFL fans who do not demand more virtue from their teams?

I suppose, at this point, you could make any argument you want.

But none of these words will change the image of Brown shamelessly playing to the crowd as he walked off the field in the middle of the third quarter. He had the look of a man who believed he had won. Almost as if he thought he had shown the Bucs, and the world, who was boss.

Instead, the NFL will go on without him.

And, sadly, I imagine Brown finally understands that.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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