There's an old saying that perception is reality.
The perception around Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is that he's a very talented player who just can't play within the rules. That perception has led to the reality that many people consider Suh the NFL's dirtiest player and biggest villain.
It isn't just the opinion of fans or the media. As Sporting News reported last November, Suh was named the NFL's dirtiest player by his peers in 2012, easily outdistancing offensive lineman Richie Incognito.
It's the second straight season Suh has "won" that distinction.
Said one NFC defensive player of Suh's reputation, "I mean, the step-on and the choke and the kick and the arm bar. Enough said, right?"
Apparently not, because Suh carved another notch into his black hat in Week 1.
Just days after being named a team captain, Suh cost his team six points when he was penalized 15 yards for a low block on Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman John Sullivan.
That play also drew a record-setting $100,000 fine from the NFL and some strong words from Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman:
He is a dirty football player. I've been saying that forever, but I really thought he would change this season. I thought he would grow. He was named a team captain, he spoke about maturity, and he even recently called a players-only meeting to ask his teammates to cut out the cheap penalties.
Imagine that: the dirtiest player in football telling others not to be dirty. That's like a Kardashian lecturing someone about partying too much.
Freeman wasn't the only prominent writer who has tired of Suh's act.
Suh, for his part, told Cindy Boren of The Washington Post he “wasn’t by any means going for his [Sullivan's] knees. He knows that.” Teammates such as wide receiver Nate Burleson came to Suh's defense, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
When you have a guy who people look at as quote-unquote dirty, a play that might not be as dirty could be deemed as such and you’re going to have to deal with the consequences. So it’s tough. I hope he appeals it because I don’t think that was worthy of being fined $100,000.
Birkett's colleague Carlos Monarrez agrees with Burleson. In his opinion, Suh got a raw deal. "The NFL isn’t fining Suh for what he did," Monarrez wrote. "It’s fining him for who he is. In the league’s eyes, Suh is a repeat offender, and it’s going to keep upping the ante with fines or suspensions."
The problem is, Suh is a repeat offender in the eyes of anyone who has, well, eyes.
Counting the lost game checks from his two-game suspension in 2011 (for the infamous Thanksgiving Day stomp), Suh has now lost well over $300,000 to fines.
You could discount every fine since then, and Suh has still taken more than his fair share of cheap shots. They go all the way back to his first preseason in the NFL.
In fact, there are reports that Suh does this sort of thing to his own teammates. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports, Jay Glazer said on the FOX Sports pregame show last Sunday Suh's antics extend to the practice field.
Even in practice, Ndamukong gives guys the business. He’ll slam a guy’s head against the ground. He’ll stomp on a guy. He’ll take little shots at guys. And guys are concerned if he can’t control himself even in practice with us, how can he control himself against someone else’s jersey?
As one might expect, head coach Jim Schwartz wasted no time in denying Glazer's report.
What else was Schwartz going to do, admit it? He's already a coach with a reputation for enabling players, and his seat is plenty warm right now. No need to throw a log on the fire.
Schwartz is far from alone in his support for Suh. His teammates (as you'd expect) have his back. (Well, except maybe for the guy he allegedly choke-slammed in practice. That guy's probably mad.)
So do thousands of Lions fans. "He's unfairly singled out by the NFL!," they say. "He just gets caught up in the moment! Besides, the good he does for the team outweighs the bad!"
Listen, none of this is meant to imply that Suh's a bad guy. He may well be a fine human being. His Suh Foundation does a lot of great work with kids in Detroit, Portland and Nebraska.
That doesn't mean the on-field nonsense doesn't need to stop.
Unfairly singled out? Suh got himself singled out. He built his reputation as a dirty player all by himself, brick by brick. Suh put the bulls-eye on his own back.
Caught up in the moment? Please. Once is caught up in the moment. Maybe twice. When you need a second hand to count the number of incidents, that excuse goes out the window.
Sooner or later, this is going to come back to bite the Lions. It very easily could have when DeAndre Levy's pick-six was wiped out against the Vikings.
Will enough be enough when a stupid penalty ends up being the difference in a playoff game? How about if the Lions are forced to play a late-season game, with their postseason hopes on the line, without Suh because he got himself suspended?
If the NFL's hefty fine was meant as a wake-up call, then Suh hit the snooze button according to the Associated Press via the Los Angeles Times. "I'm going to continue to play hard, blue-collar football," Suh said.
And there you have it. Suh's not going to change. The Lions don't want him to, with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham telling Dave Birkett of USA Today that "I think you let him play."
And so the Lions will do just that, gambling each Sunday that the damage Suh does to the opposition will outweigh the damage he does to his own team.
In Suh's case, the reality of his "villainy" truly is all about perception.
To many people, Suh is the dirtiest player in the league, a cheap-shot artist whom Freeman quite bluntly labeled a "punk." However, to those who support the Lions, Suh's a great defensive player who is a victim of both the NFL's and media's efforts to unfairly label him a villain.
Neither of those camps is going to be swayed anytime soon, and there's probably at least a little bit of truth in each position.
Either way, Ndamukong Suh doesn't appear to care even a little bit.
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