To understand why the Detroit Lions’ Ndamukong Suh is often ranked as the “NFL’s dirtiest player,” consider three numbers.
First: 216,875. That’s how many dollars Suh has had to pay in eight separate fines throughout his four-year career.
Second: 32. That’s how many votes Suh got in a Sporting News poll of 103 NFL players to determine the league’s dirtiest player. (Suh won.)
Third: 19. That’s the percentage of viewers who claimed in a Nielsen poll to have a favorable opinion of Suh, making him the league’s least popular player.
And given his behavior in the Lions’ game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, those numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon. During the game, Rodgers left with an injured calf, but returned. When he did, Suh backed into Rodgers while the quarterback lay supine on the ground. Suh stepped on Rodgers’s injured calf – not once, but twice.
Come Monday, the league suspended Suh for a game, making it the third game Suh has missed for dirty play. (Suh is planning to appeal.)
“You did not respond in the manner of someone who had lost his balance and accidentally contacted another player who was lying on the ground,” NFL Vice President of Football Operations Merton Hanks told Suh in a letter. “This illegal contact, specifically the second step and push off with your left foot, clearly could have been avoided.”
Why, Suh, why? The answer may actually be quite simple: Suh simply can’t help it. There’s something almost pathological about his play.
Contemplate this: The league has punished Suh’s behavior, which has ranged from kicking a quarterback in the groin to slamming an offensive lineman’s head into the ground three times, in myriad ways. Suh has been fined repeatedly – once $100,000, the most expensive fine for on-field play in NFL history. The league has publicly upbraided and shamed him. And even his team has called his behavior “unacceptable.”
The drama has “obviously tainted me and given me a bad rep,” he told XM NFL Radio last year. “… I think I’ve definitely grown up quite a bit just understanding that if you’re not growing up, you’re just moving backward. I’m a person that always wants to move forward, always want to grow and learn and not be the smartest person in the room, because when you’re not the smartest person in the room, you’re always learning things. I’m a learner.”
Apparently, he’s not. But Suh isn’t alone in this. Other athletes, too, are likewise plagued by inexplicable outbursts of dirty play. And no matter the stakes, nor the suspensions, nor the fines, nor the apologies, little has stopped it.
For precedents, look no further than Uruguay soccer player Luis Suarez, a man perhaps more famous for his incisors than his soccer acumen. Suarez, in the heat of play, has bitten three players, the most recent during last summer’s World Cup.
“What was Suarez thinking?” the New York Times asked afterward. “What will happen to him now? And, perhaps most pointedly, after two instances like this, how in the world could Suarez have done it again?”
Suarez’s track record with biting and Suh’s brazen stomping show striking similarities. Suarez has likewise lamented his biting past. “Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself,” he once said. “But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.” And yet the bites kept coming.
The reason, one sports psychologist has speculated, has to do with passion. For men like Suh and Suarez, the most intense moments – the most intense games – may actually bring about the stupidest play.
“Emotions drive athlete behavior much more than rational thought,” Adam Naylor of Boston University told New York Magazine in June. “Intense emotions can lead to incredible performances, but they can also lead to total boneheadedness. Frustration is known to lead to aggression.”
Behavior on the field that by every estimation is stupid – like biting or stomping – is almost always extemporaneous, explained Thomas Fawcett of the University of Salford when he expounded on Suarez’s biting demons in 2013. “It’s not pre-planned – it’s a very spontaneous, emotional response,” he told the BBC. “He’s doing it on impulse.”
Suh isn’t getting off easy with the pundits. “Behavior like Suh’s is not only unacceptable, it’s dangerous,” wrote Nancy Armour in USA Today.
But that doesn’t mean he can change it. Stomping to Suh may be what biting is to Suarez: an uncontrollable gesture that comes from the heart.