Juju Smith-Schuster is a man of many talents: he has almost 3 million fans on Tiktok, almost 300,000 followers on Twitch for his Fortnite streams, has a massive social media following for his dog, Boujee, and is a bit of a dancer.
He also happens to play in the NFL for a living, too.

Juju has built a persona for himself off the field, connecting to his fans with media, gaming, and interacting with others online, and for the most part, it hasn’t detracted from his play; he was a Pro Bowler his sophomore year and was voted teammate of the year amongst his peers. However, there’s been pressure put on him to be the guy in Pittsburgh ever since the departure of Antonio Brown, and we’ve seen his numbers dip now that he’s covered by the #1 defensive options by the opposition.

Photo: Duane Prokop/Getty Images

And with this dip in production comes the criticism for non-football related interests.

His pregame routine used to involve dancing on the midfield logo, so in a loss to the Bills, all we heard about was how he was a “distraction” and he merely provided bulletin board material for fueling Buffalo’s fire.

People questioned his maturity, his focus, and his respect for the game amongst other things.

“Does Juju care more about his online followers than the game of football??” 

“Juju Smith-Schuster will never win a ring with this immature mentality. Focus on respect and winning.”

Look, it’s not great optics to dance jovially at an opponent’s midfield before the game and then go out and take an L, but Pittsburgh losing that game had nothing to do with Juju being a video game streamer or a dancer. You can say that it made the Bills defenders a bit angrier if they saw it, but in the game of football, isn’t it already impossible to tank as a player? Aren’t you already trying to mercilessly tackle the other opponent regardless?

Photo: The Checkdown

This isn’t just a Juju problem, either.

It feels as if any athlete now has any side interests to promote themselves that may be deemed “millennial,” the off-the-field activity is blamed; it gets labeled as a hindrance, a character issue, or a red flag amongst other things. In 2018, former college coach Jim Mora legitimately had questions about his quarterback prospect, Josh Rosen, because he “had a lot of interests” and was a millennial who “needed to be challenged intellectually.” All of this because Rosen had a reputation for being outspoken, speaking on the rights for college athlete compensation, climate change, and humanitarian work.

Let’s look at the NBA, for example.

While the league may not get near as high of television ratings as the NFL does, the association and players constantly are building platforms on social media to expand the game online and internationally. The NBA subreddit subscription blows the NFL subscription out of the water, ranked #77 in the world in comparison to the NFL coming in 184th. Viewers eat up the drama that occurs on AND off the court and is able to follow the individual storylines with ease.

It may be a lot easier to promote the faces of the league when you’re not wearing helmets, the individual play styles are incredibly diverse and distinctive, and there are only 10 people on the court at once, but the effort in self-promotion the individual players put forth has been a significant part of connecting to a wider audience and creating new, young fans all across the world. This ranges from athletes getting signature sneakers, showing off pregame fashion, or producing social media or gaming content a la Juju.

Football and baseball on the other hand have created a culture where this may be discouraged or shamed as a distraction away from the game, yet organizations still expect the superstars to be the “face of the franchise.”

Justin Herbert, coming out of Oregon, had scouts question his leadership capabilities because he was an introverted, studious, soft-spoken guy with no social media, then he went out and became a rookie of the year favorite in his first year with the Chargers.

Mike Trout, who may be the greatest player EVER to play the game of baseball, was questioned by the league commissioner, Rob Manfred, as to why he doesn’t market himself more to become popular; outside of being an Eagles fanatic, we don’t really know anything about him. He just prefers to be a family man who goes about his business winning American League MVPs.

The organizations and front offices need to realize that you can not have it both ways. What ultimately matters is building a roster of team leaders with great men and women on and off the field in your locker room. If he or she would prefer to be more to themselves and aren’t comfortable with the off-the-field marketing, that deserves respect just as much as those who have hobbies and interests away from their daily job and want to connect with fans all around the world.

With the rise in importance of technology and new platforms are continuing to be created to connect us as a society, there will continue to be more and more talented guys like Juju coming into the league.

The bottom line should be that as long as you aren’t a distraction detracting away from your team and your performance isn’t hindered, it shouldn’t be labeled as a “red flag” and more coaches and organizations should have an idea that this is merely becoming a new normative behavior.

Featured Image: The Checkdown
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