Down and Distance
Over the course of the 2011 NFL season, no team—from a narrative perspective—has been as fascinating as the Detroit Lions. The Broncos’ turnaround under Tebow and Von Miller is compelling, but one-note; the Packers’ absolutely dominant win-streak is the Speed 2 to the 2007 Patriots’ Keanu Reeves picture; and the Eagles epic collapse would have only been worth following for the final weeks of the season if Vince Young had played out yet another winning-streak redemption arc. A lot of teams are playing good, fun-to-watch football, but if you were making a movie about an NFL team in 2011, the Detroit Lions would be your story.
Suh, in that moment, was both a bully and a loser. His team was down, he had just been knocked on his ass by some backup Packers guard named Evan Dietrich-Smith, and that’s when he decided to smash the dude’s head into the ground.
It wouldn’t be a comedy, either. To start the season, the narrative was all redemptive, power-of-hope stuff about the ability of a great team to restore the faith of the crumbling city in which they’re based. It was fun to root for the Lions as they kept pace with the Packers to go 5-0 at the start of the season – the team that had been the NFL’s sad-sack loser story for over a decade finally making good fit well into our love of redemption stories.
The Lions aren’t that team, though. One of the interesting things to watch about this season has been the team’s coach, Jim Schwartz, as he’s slowly turned into the Cobra Kai sensei from The Karate Kid, taunting opposing players and coaches and – in light of the league-leading number of personal foul penalties the Lions possess – doing little to curb the dirtiest team in the NFL. Even saint Tony Dungy questions whether Schwartz is encouraging his team’s dirty play, and when you’re getting called out by the first guy to forgive Michael Vick, it’s not a great sign.
All of which is instructive, if you see the way that we perceive football teams as a guide for what Americans are and aren’t willing to tolerate. The way the public reaction to the Lions has turned over the 2011 season has lessons that anybody in the public eye—whether they’re political candidates or image-rehabbing celebrities—ought to take into consideration.
Nobody likes a bully.
America is a culture that is hard-wired against bullies. We like winners, and we’ve gotten our heads spun around enough over the past several decades to confuse a bully with a winner. But when you’ve got a clear-cut bully, breaking rules with malice in his heart because he can’t succeed by playing fair, America will turn on you.
That’s why the reaction to Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s absurdly over-the-top dirty play against the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving has been the top story in the NFL all weekend. Suh, in that moment, was both a bully and a loser. His team was down, he had just been knocked on his ass by some backup Packers guard named Evan Dietrich-Smith, and that’s when he decided to smash the dude’s head into the ground three times before stomping on his arm.
It’s not like that was the first time Suh had ever played dirty—he has a tendency to tackle quarterbacks by the head, and he loves ripping off opposing player’s helmets – but in those moments, he was a winner, and he had no shortage of fans praising his aggressiveness. Things turned for him when he started to play dirty in response to losing. Now, who knows if Subway will want the petulant, stomping bully hocking five dollar footlongs in their commercials. A lot of bad behavior that you might be celebrated for when you’re winning looks really distasteful once you’re exposed.
You can be a smug jerk or a whiny crybaby, but never both.
After a decade of losing, Lions fans thrilled to the sight of a fiery head coach in Jim Schwartz shouting “Learn the rules!” to opposing coaches and taunting Dez Bryant by shouting “Incomplete!” at him after an overturned challenge. Yeah, he looked like a smug dickhead to a lot of people, but smug dickishness isn’t a quality Americans necessarily find to be problematic.
Things turned for Schwartz, though, after the incident with Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers. It’s been replayed a bunch, but here’s the quickie recap: In a close game, the Lions lose their first of the season. Afterwards, 49ers coach Harbaugh shakes Schwartz’s hand quickly, ending it with a dismissive pat on the back. Schwartz, apparently offended, takes off after Harbaugh like he wants to fight. Then, in the post-game press conference, Schwartz got all pouty-faced, talking about “protocol” between coaches and how he “didn’t expect an obscenity.”
All of which might have been convincing if Schwartz hadn’t displayed at least the same lack of interest in protocol and not-using-obscenities as Harbaugh himself. But Schwartz, whose use of the word “motherfucker” on the sidelines is growing to be legendary, isn’t the right guy to complain about those things. The dude who looked like he was about to record a new version of "The Super Bowl Shuffle" after five weeks doesn't come off well when he complains about somebody else being arrogant.
You can’t have it both ways—if you set out to break the mold and be an iconoclastic, controversial figure, then you can’t complain when someone offends you by doing the same thing.
When the only people defending you are creeps, it’s time to re-evaluate.
At this point, most Lions fans are with the rest of the NFL-watching public that Suh needs to be suspended, and that the culture of the Lions organization under Schwartz is a bit ugly. If you read defenses of Suh’s Thanksgiving smash-and-stomp, though, you’ll see that it’s not so much people arguing that what he did was clean, or that being ejected for the second half of the game was sufficient punishment—read the comments, and it’s mostly people talking about howthis is further proof ofthe “wussification” of the NFL—a common complaint that pops up around everything from the players wearing pink shoes in October in support of breast cancer awareness, to the concept of women serving as referees.
The fact that there are people in this country who confuse violence with strength, and that a number of those people like football, isn’t a huge shock. But when the only people on your side are people who consider promoting breast cancer awareness or employing women to be signs of weakness, it’s probably safe to say that you should consider whether you might really be in the wrong.