Wide receiver Antonio Brown is eligible to make his debut with the New England Patriots on Sunday while the league investigates accusations of rape and sexual assault made this week in a lawsuit by a woman who once worked as his trainer.
Because the N.F.L. has only just begun looking into the accusation, Brown was able to practice with the Patriots and it seemed likely he would be with the team for the game, on the road against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots, however, would not say whether he would play.
“I’m not going to hand out a copy of the game plan here,” Coach Bill Belichick told reporters Friday.
The N.F.L. began looking into the case soon after Brown was accused in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday. But the league will not interview the woman who made the accusations until next week at the earliest, a person with knowledge of the matter said. At any time, the league could place Brown on what is known as the commissioner’s exempt list, which is a suspension with pay, while it investigates the accusations.
The commissioner’s exempt list is used if a player has been formally charged in a criminal case involving a crime of sexual assault, other kinds of violence or animal abuse. But a player who is suspected of committing any of those crimes can be placed on this list if the commissioner, Roger Goodell, believes that “the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so,” according to the N.F.L. Player Personnel Policy Manual.
Goodell has taken such action in previous cases that involved a police investigation or when evidence like a video recording surfaced, but this case arises from a lawsuit. Brown has denied the allegation and suggested he would countersue.
The potential appearance of Brown on the field against the Dolphins would be the latest twist in a turbulent year for Brown, who officially joined the Patriots on Monday after requesting and being granted a release from the Oakland Raiders. Brown, a seven-time Pro Bowler who was traded by the Steelers to the Raiders in the spring, wore out his welcome in Oakland before playing in a single game. He missed most of training camp because of a foot injury and a dispute over a helmet, and then battled his coach and general manager. The Raiders cut Brown last Saturday, and the Patriots quickly signed him.
The lawsuit against Brown was filed Tuesday by Britney Taylor, a former gymnast who met Brown while they were attending Central Michigan University. Brown once employed Taylor as a trainer.
Through his lawyer, Brown denied all of the allegations in the suit, though his lawyer acknowledged Brown had sexual contact with Taylor.
The N.F.L. has often wrestled with how to handle players’ conduct off the field.
It has been accused by women’s rights activists of not doing enough to penalize players accused or convicted of sexual abuse and domestic violence. In 2014, the league expanded its investigative unit to include former prosecutors and specialists in domestic violence. The league also said it would no longer rely exclusively on the decisions of law enforcement officers to determine whether to fine or suspend a player.
Brown, 31, agreed last weekend to a deal with the Patriots but was ineligible to play in their season-opening victory against Pittsburgh on Sunday because of the timing of his signing. His status for this week’s game had remained in doubt while the league considered its options after learning of the allegations in the lawsuit.
Brown took part in the Patriots’ practice session Friday, one of several signals that he would travel with the team and play on Sunday.
Still, Belichick made clear that even a player as talented as Brown had significant ground to make up. He noted that the West Coast offense that Brown had trained in with Oakland was far different than the one he will play in alongside Tom Brady.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Belichick said. “Obviously he’s not familiar with our offense. The systems that he’s been in are quite different.”
“He’s working hard to pick it up,” Belichick added, “and we’re working hard to get it to him.”