Even though American football is the biggest sport in the nation, it is also the most miniscule of America’s major team sports on the global stage. Soccer is, of course, enormous throughout the world—except here. Even as the women’s national team is set to compete for the World Cup, interest in the United States is fairly minimal.
Hockey has a wide reach, as does baseball. Even basketball has competitive leagues all across the world that field Olympic-quality teams, even though the US, whenever it tries, easily wins the gold. But American football? It remains primarily the phenomenon of our peculiar little country in which it was invented.
That’s why the NFL is trying to change that, slowly but surely. Canada has its CFL, but the league is trying to establish its presence in Mexico as well, and particularly in London, where it has agreed to play a handful of regular season games every year.
And the NFL Academy in the UK just recently opened up, for which Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is an ambassador. He wasn’t the only Steeler present, though. There was also Christian Scotland-Williamson, who is in his second year with the team after spending 2018 on the practice squad.
He did so, though as an exception, the 11th man. You see, Scotland-Williamson is a rugby player by trade, a sport much bigger in England than American football. He is part of an outreach program that gives teams the ability to roster international players who are learning the game without penalty.
With Smith-Schuster and Scotland-Williamson on-hand to kick off the NFL Academy, the former quickly learned that, over there, the two of them are on pretty equal footing, even though the former is one of the bright young stars in the NFL and a Pro Bowler to boot, while the latter has never played a snap.
“I was surprised how many guys know me. It’s even with Christian”, he told reporters at the event, per Teresa Varley via the team’s website. “In the states people come up to me and show some love. But here, when I walk down the streets of the UK and they come up to me…that is really shocking to me. It happened four, five, six times the first day here. They show so much love. It’s awesome”.
Before Scotland-Williamson signed up to participate in the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, he spent four years from 2014 through 2017 playing for the Worcester Warriors. He gained celebrity there, particularly after a tackle that he made went viral and encouraged him to pursue an NFL career.
Being an English citizen in the NFL attracted him further attention back on his home soil, so it’s no surprise that Scotland-Williamson—in the US, a name few of us know—is an easily-recognized figure on the streets at nearly the level of one of the stars of the game.
And that’s one of the reasons this NFL Academy exists. It’s going to be a school in which kids aged 16 to 18 will get both a life and football education, and some at the end may even earn scholarships to attend American universities and participate in their football program, and everything that implies. If they can get some international players in the NFL, it would go a long way toward attracting interest outside of the United States.