Eagles’ AJ Brown is not selfish. He struggles to deal with social media and his mental health.

AJ Brown has been at the center of a rather strange controversy over the past six days – strange if you don’t know anything about him, strange if you’re not a person who lives on the Internet. In fact, unless you spend a few hours a day on Twitter/X or other social media, you might not know that AJ Brown was at the center of the controversy at all. But he was, and the subject deserves to be explained and explored because it says as much about the modern media environment, about a significant segment of our culture and society, as it does about AJ Brown.

After the Eagles’ 33-25 Christmas Day win over the Giants, Brown declined to comment to a group of reporters who approached his locker. “I have nothing nice to say,” he said. He then did not speak to the media on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, allowing speculation and conjecture to flourish about his state of mind and the reasons for his silence. Was he mad that Jalen Hurts wasn’t throwing him the ball more often? Was he disappointed with the performance of the Eagles’ offense? Did he and coach Nick Sirianni have any conflict? Did he fulfill the negative stereotype of an NFL wide receiver — self-centered and diva-like?

These questions became more than questions on Brown’s social media. These have turned into allegations and insults, and Brown has a tendency to spend too much time on these feeds and struggles to deal with the criticism he receives there. His only response was a post on Twitter/X: Kevin Durant’s 71-second monologue in which Durant lamented being overlooked and what he felt was unfair coverage throughout his career.

Does this post mean Brown has a falling out with the reporters who cover the Eagles? Does it make him soft, weak or selfish? This is not so. That doesn’t make him the kind of distraction and embarrassment that, say, Terrell Owens was. Survey the Eagles coaches and players, and they’ll tell you without exception that Brown is a great teammate, that his frustrations this season have been born of the team’s stumbles and failures, not his own personal interests.

No, it makes him a sensitive person who publicly admitted in 2021 that he had suicidal thoughts and dealt with depression. That makes him a professional athlete who — like Lane Johnson, like Brandon Brooks, like too many others to count — struggles with mental health issues. It’s important to understand why AJ Brown — not another wide receiver, not another Eagles player, not anyone but AJ Brown — can operate the way he does and has.

“It’s all about growing up and learning how to deal with different things,” said Eagles safety Kevin Bayard, who was also Brown’s teammate for three years with the Tennessee Titans. “It’s very good to be athletes. It’s a very emotional sport. You want guys to play on that edge, have a lot of emotion during the game. At the same time, you want guys to be able to control that emotion. So there is always a delicate balance.

“For a guy like AJ, who is very emotional, who cares a lot about his teammates, who cares a lot about the game, sometimes it’s misconstrued as immature. He deals with fans and criticism differently than anyone else.”

AJ Brown is 26. It’s easy to tell he’s a grown man, a man responsible for all his actions and reactions, for what he says online or on the sidelines or in the locker room after the game. It’s also easy to forget how young he is at 26. It’s easy to forget that a 26-year-old man, any 26-year-old man, has never known a day of his life without the Internet—without the freedom it provides, without the risk it poses. It’s easy to forget that a 26-year-old man, any 26-year-old man, has never experienced a moment of his adult life without social media, without Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or TikTok. It’s easy to assume that the negative feedback a 26-year-old man receives in this media is insignificant. It’s easy to forget that all this negative feedback can still be overwhelming.

» READ MORE: AJ Brown admits he made a mistake with his latest social media posts: ‘Blame it on me’

And it’s easy to forget that this particular 26-year-old — who is a famous football player and who, after the Eagles traded him, signed a $100 million contract extension — has 621,000 followers on Instagram and another 259,000 on Twitter. That’s more than three-quarters of a million people waiting to see whatever he’s done or hear whatever he has to say about whatever at any given time. Who can love everything he does and says. Who could love him so much that he would show his affection in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable or even fear for his safety. Who can criticize him for a missed pass or sideline dispute. Who could draw inaccurate conclusions about him based on a video clip or quote without context. Who could direct an offensive or vulgar post at Brown and fire him for what it costs him? They will never have to face him. They would never have to look him in the eye and repeat whatever horrible words they posted, and they never would.

“Knowing the position we’re in, you’re never going to win a battle on social media with a fan, no matter who they are,” Byard said. “At the end of the day, someone is going to talk back to you, saying you’re immature or can’t handle your emotions. My thing is, you might see it and think, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But don’t be happy on Twitter.

“Let’s say, for example, you don’t have the best game. You get on social media and everyone is making fun of you, saying you’re disgusting. And then you go to the grocery store the next day and people are nice, like, “I’m a big fan.” The energy on social media is not the same as live.”

No, it’s not. Byard said he never advised Brown to stay off social media because “I would never tell a person what to do.” It might be best for him though. Maybe what AJ Brown needs, for his own sake, is to turn off his smartphone, put all his apps aside for a while, and trust that the attitude he gets from someone in the same room with him, is the most important thing.

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