TAMPA — The Bucs’ Antonio Brown and Mike Edwards did not contest their three-game suspensions handed down by the NFL for misrepresenting their COVID-19 vaccination status.
And coach Bruce Arians is in no rush to judgment about the future of either player until the two are eligible to return in Week 16 against the Panthers.
The third suspended player in the penalties announced Thursday, former Bucs receiver John Franklin III, is a free agent.
“The league did their due diligence, and we move on,” Arians said Friday. “I will not address (Brown and Edwards) for the next three weeks. They’ll just be working out, and we’ll address them at that time.”
Arians said the Bucs have been among the best teams in the league at handling the pandemic, and he was among the first coaches in the NFL to proclaim his team 100 percent vaccinated before the 2021 season started.
That’s what Arians said was so disappointing about the suspensions, which were accepted by all three players after waiving their right to appeal.
“Yeah, it pisses me off,” Arians said. “But it is what it is. We’ve done everything. I mean, everything. There’s a lot more to that story, but I just hope (the league doesn’t) stop looking.”
When asked if he believed there are other issues throughout the NFL regarding the vaccination statuses of players, Arians said, “Maybe.”
Arians’ position Friday was in stark contrast to last week, when he told The Rich Eisen Show that “it’s really no story.”
The Tampa Bay Times first reported that Brown had obtained and utilized a fake vaccination card, according to his former live-in chef, Steven Ruiz, which prompted the league to begin its investigation.
Two former federal prosecutors who work for the league used the story as a template for determining that all three players had misrepresented their vaccination status, which is punishable under the league’s personal conduct policy. Using or selling fake cards is also a felony.
The Bucs are believed to have cooperated fully once the NFL took over the investigation and as a result were not fined.
The day before Thanksgiving, NFL investigators contacted Ruiz by telephone and told him he had the right to an attorney before answering questions. Ruiz, who has said he is owed $10,000 by Brown, accepted the interview without hesitation and told the NFL how he knew the Bucs receiver had purchased a fake vaccination card for himself and girlfriend Cydney Moreau.
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Ruiz also identified Franklin as the player who had sold Brown the fake card.
What ultimately tripped up Brown was that the card said he was vaccinated in Citrus County, 80 miles north of Tampa. The Bucs offered players convenient access to vaccines at their facility to comply with strict league protocols.
Investigators tried to verify the information on the card but ran into familiar roadblocks, a league official with direct knowledge of the investigation told the Times. Vaccine records are considered confidential health information in Florida that may be requested only by individuals and not employers.
Brown’s card included a viable lot number for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine he said he received with an appropriate expiration date.
Brown told investigators he traveled an hour and a half to Citrus County without teammates so he would not be recognized. But when the league discovered that vaccination cards belonging to Edwards and Franklin were distributed in Citrus on the same day, their stories unraveled, the league official said.
None of the players had personal ties to Citrus County, and the likelihood that they would have been vaccinated there independently on the same day was remote.
The players association represented all three players during the joint interview.
Brown is recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in a win at Philadelphia on Oct. 14. He was expected to miss the next two games but now isn’t eligible to return until the Bucs host Carolina the day after Christmas.
Edwards, a key member of the injury-riddled secondary, was recovering from a knee injury he suffered while making a game-saving tackle on a 72-yard kickoff return by the Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers on Sunday.
Arians said the suspensions won’t be a distraction heading into Sunday’s game at Atlanta.
“Two guys — basically as we look at it, they’re hurt,” Arians said. “And I will say this. The last two years, I don’t know if there has been a team better against COVID than we have been. This is a setback because of what has happened, but we have done an amazing job. We’ve never had an outbreak in a position room. So I’m very happy with that part.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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